While I have a hard time believing the world needed a remake of Dario Argento’s gaudy and surreal giallo horror Suspiria, if it’s going to happen could it at least be fun? Luca Guadagnino has been developing a redo of his countryman’s 1977 film for years but finally got it moving thanks to the success of Call Me By Your Name, and it seems he spent all of that time thinking of ways to craft a plodding, pretentious bore overstuffed with gender politics and connections to Nazism and radical left-wing extremist groups. But at least the dance numbers are pretty sick! As in gory as fuck! At least they are if you can stay awake long enough to endure them.
The barest threads of Argento’s film remain, only to have Argento rip the guts out of them and splay them all over the floor. Dakota Johnson plays Susie, an American who arrives in a dull, rain-soaked Berlin to audition at a prestigious dancing school, only a day after Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has fled them in fear, babbling some stuff about witches to her shrink, Dr Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf aka Tilda Swinton in disguise), who takes it all in surprisingly well. Susie gives the impression of a neophyte but once she starts dancing she creates a hypnotic, rhythmic aura that attracts Madame Blanc (Swinton, witchy in the most Swinton way possible), who literally comes running from another room to witness it.
Something about Susie has stirred something unnatural inside Blanc, who challenges her new pupil with more significant performances. Nightmarish visions too obtuse to make any sense flash into Susie’s mind, but they are nothing compared to what’s happening in reality. When she breaks into a rendition of “Volk”, in another room a fellow dancer is cracked and broken in a horrific mirror-image of her movements. It’s, to put it simply, a grotesque scene that had viewers at our screening turning their heads away in disgust. But that doesn’t do, because the sounds of her bones snapping and her muffled agony is far worse than anything you can see. Credit to Guadagnino, his DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and the sound team for concocting such a ghoulish image, hardly the only one that will haunt you for a long time to come.
The prevailing feelings for me were boredom and exhaustion, however. Guadagnino hasn’t lost his ability to create an immersive, sensual atmosphere, this time one that also has an otherworldly quality, like we’ve stepped into some bizarro version of reality. He uses a combination of tacky camera tricks to create this sensation, many of the same tricks that Argento’s film is justifiably criticized for. Some will try to convince you Guadagnino did it with more style but this is a deception. Guadagnino’s version is no more or less convincing than Argento’s, who did it in about half the runtime, and he had the smarts to simply make a weird movie about witches who run a ballet academy. The most ineffective aspects of Guadagnino’s remake are his attempts to tie it into real-life events, the Holocaust and the activities of the extremist group Baader-Meinhoff. While themes of Nazi guilt run through many of the story’s threads, along with a hearty dose of male admonishment for wrongs committed against women, they suck you right out of the moment when Guadagnino’s stunning visuals are working overtime to pull you in. Another distraction? The title cards breaking down each unnecessary chapter, a sure sign your film has stepped over the line from artsy into pompous. It goes double if there’s an epilogue….which Suspiria has.
We could’ve done with a greater exploration of the twisted teacher/pupil relationship between Susie and Blanc, and of the reasons for every awful act committed by the coven. These women exist in a community where ritual is everything, even a simple gesture of friendship carries a lot of weight, and I wish Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich had done more to go into the lives of this supernatural sisterhood.
Suspiria has “divisive” written all over it, and will surely be a film that some find to be a true work of art while others, like me, write it off as pretentious nonsense. It will definitely have people talking, that’s for sure. But for me the only witch worth talking about is Sabrina and she’s on Netflix.