Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich, Dario Argento (characters), Daria Nicolodi (characters)
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elena Fokina
Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.
“Love and manipulation, they share houses very often. They are frequent bedfellows.” – Dr. Josef Klemperer
In this case, that house could be the Markos Dance Academy itself, or even all of 1977 Berlin, which saw the events of the German Autumn and the kidnappings by the Red Army Faction (RAF). These acts were carried out due to anti-imperialist beliefs, and those notions challenging colonialism run through Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. This is barely a remake, and despite dancing around the bare bones of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic (with a nice historical tribute to Argento’s film setting this one during that same year), Guadagnino has made a different film with a different agenda, from gothic horror to social nightmare. It’ll also make you squirm, whether you like it or not.
Like Argento’s film, Suspiria follows one Susie Bannion (this time played by the always commanding Dakota Johnson), now running from her Mennonite family in Ohio to join to a mysterious dance academy run by Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc (one of at least three characters she portrays here). Ballet takes on two forms here, artistic expression and (of all things) witchcraft, and it’s clear that this academy would be more accurately defined as a coven. This coven suggests its own imperialistic battle between the women who govern it, challenging each other over who should maintain control; a horrific curse against one such opposition (Olga, played by Elena Fokina) leads to a bone-crushing ballet sequence that’ll make the queasiest of people pass out, an agonizing example of the film’s glorious aesthetics.
The social and political parallels may be quite clear, but are nonetheless felt. Susie is perhaps running from her own history of religious colonialism and abuse, or maybe that’s just how she perceives it to be. Perhaps a similar history can be shared among the women of this coven, leading them to act out in the ways that they do. With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that Suspiria is a female dominated film, depicting those who feel the need to offer strength and protection amongst each other, and rightfully so, given our current social climate; a through-line within the film asks people to “believe women”, openly enforcing the film’s notions on femininity. This is further explored through the film’s only prominent male character, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton again), who attempts to intervene for those seeking outside help; he is driven by guilt due to the tragic political history involving his late wife, and Swinton’s performance provides a pathos that lingers from the film’s opening scene to its concluding epilogue. I think we can finally acknowledge that Tilda Swinton is in fact a chameleon.
Films with this much ambition are easily respected and appreciated, but not always perfect; thankfully Suspiria works much more than it doesn’t. It does, however, stumble in some of its editing choices, particularly during Act One, where it seems clear that Guadagnino had initially shot a much longer film and was pressed for keeping things within a reasonable running time; an initial conversation between Klemperer and Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), for instance, seems constantly interrupted by insert shots in order to shorten the actual conversation, and it can feel distracting. The final act as well (Act Six) also wraps up many of the film’s central themes with a revelation that narratively seems to come out of nowhere, even when it is surrounded by a most over-the-top climax that could have veered dangerously close to self-parody. But somehow Guadagnino makes it work emotionally; Suspiria is once again a very sensory experience (with nightmare sequences that sear to the brain), and his use of music (courtesy of the great Thom Yorke) mysteriously gives that final act dramatic validity that would have seemed impossible on paper (the song “Unmade” in particular is hauntingly gorgeous).
As an interconnected tale of imperialism, emotional manipulation, and femininity, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is one social nightmare of a movie, one that marries 1977 Berlin with witchcraft as a means of granting one their free will. Perhaps these witches were once victims of abuse in their own respective ways, only to now become inadvertent culprits of those same colonial and dominating ways within their own coven; and how ironic that it’s a certain “goddess of death” that intervenes and grants these women the freedom to govern themselves.
Dance everyone, dance. It’s so beautiful.
Overall Grade: B+
Hear our podcast review on Episode 298