Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is going to piss off so many people. Fans of Dario Argento’s 1977 original will be enraged by the changes. Fans of Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name will be appalled by how brutal, gruesome, and sadistic this film is. General audiences will be bored by the film’s arthouse pretensions as it ponders violence against women, political revolution and separation, and the artistic rites of dance. Early reviews said Suspiria would be this year’s mother! That’s accurate in terms of the divisive response. As I told a friend online, if this movie gets higher than an “F” on Cinemascore, I’ll eat a T-shirt. Suspiria will bomb, but it will leave behind one hell of a crater.
Having written all that, Guadagnino’s mystical grand guignol piece has cast a spell on me. I can’t stop thinking about this new version of Suspiria. I can’t even tell whether or not I actually like it or just admire it as a singular, bonkers work of splatter art. At the moment, Suspiria 2018 is like a Rorschach test made with blood.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Release Date: October 26, 2018 (NY/LA); November 2, 2018 (wide release)
Guadagnino’s Suspiria isn’t a remake of the 1977 Argento film. It’s more of a radical reimagining of the source material that consciously does the opposite of the original. The basic set up is still there: Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) enrolls in a prestigious dance academy, witchcraft ensues. But Guadagnino’s film spins out from there, expanding the scope of the story beyond Susie’s struggles at the school to the political strife of a divided Berlin. Tilda Swinton plays the sinister dance director Madame Blanc as well as Dr. Jozef Klemperer, a male grief-stricken psychotherapist. As a man, Swinton emotes effectively under heavy makeup, and is credited as fictional actor “Lutz Ebersdorf”. It’s a silly but thematically important bit of stunt casting I’ll get to in a bit.
Argento’s Suspiria was bright and colorful, while Guadagnino’s Suspiria has a muted color palette. Argento’s Suspiria was a tale of defeating evil witches, while Guadagnino’s Suspiria seems to offer a more feminine/obliquely feminist take on witchcraft in line with Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Goblin’s iconic score for Suspiria 1977 was prog as f**k, while Thom Yorke’s Suspiria 2018 score is mournful and diaphanous. Most importantly, Suspiria 1977 was a nightmare fairy tale propelled by the lurid imperatives of Argento’s subconscious. I don’t think there’s any subtext to the original Suspiria, but it doesn’t need it. (Many good films don’t.) The original Suspiria is a lean, mean, prog-rock bad dream machine, that’s intended as a sensory experience rather than an intellectual one.
Suspiria 2018 is packed full of subtext, but it is also a fine, nightmarish sensory experience. One grisly moment in the first third of the film involves Susie embracing her abilities as a dancer. Her preternatural talent is imbued with supernatural power, causing a rebellious student in another room to twist into an agonized human pretzel. The grueling snaps and screams in one room are intercut with rapturous twirls and panting. It’s a terrifyingly memorable sequence, and the sheer brutality of it matches some the best cinematic kills in Argento’s career. (The sadism is on par with mid-tier Lucio Fulci.) This isn’t the goriest moment in the film, or the best dance sequence. The original Suspiria took the dancing for granted, but this remake, in one of its more inspired additions, marries dancing to spellcasting. Not all magic is verbal, and leaning into the mesmerizing, somatic aspects of invocations is a brilliant concept.
Yet Suspiria 2018 falters when screenwriter David Kajganich tries to add too much depth to the sensory thrills. I felt like the bigger intellectual concerns had to be teased out by the audience through inference rather than being implied by the script. For instance, we learn about Susie’s repressed upbringing in Ohio, but I’m not sure what to make of her character’s journey in this film. There’s a sexual awakening that’s maybe sublimated through dance; and there’s an empowerment and maturity achieved through dance as a rite? I see point A and point Z, but the whole middle of the alphabet seems buried. Is this the duality of creation and destruction? Of the motherly aspects of bringing art into the world? The professional politics of the dance school also felt unclear to me. Madame Blanc vies for supremacy against the little-seen Helena Markos, though I’m not sure why one is favored over the other. Is this lack of clarity a case of gauzy vagueness (which is a veil for empty and half-formed ideas) or opaque complexity (which is a veil cast by a network of densely overlaid ideas)?
Then there’s the whole Dr. Jozef Klemperer subplot I’m just not sure what to do with. It feels like a meditation on the long-festering wounds of German history throughout the 20th century as well as a rumination on lost, unresolved love. That’s fine, but it also feels like it’s grafted onto Suspiria from an entirely different movie. At 152 minutes, the movie drags when its narrative and thematic intentions aren’t clear, and I was never clear on Dr. Klemperer’s function whenever he was on screen. I’m still not sure what to make of him now, and even wonder how Suspiria would play if many of his scenes were removed. So much texture is gone if he is taken out, though. The lean, mean Suspiria machine from 1977 never has this problem, but maybe my enjoyment of this billowy, unseemly 2018 reimagining is due to these parts that do not easily fall into place and remain at the forefront of my mind; uncertainties like magnets attracting attention and meaning.
I mentioned the stunt casting of Tilda Swinton, as “Lutz Ebersdorf”, as Dr. Jozef Klemperer, which fits into the film’s larger concerns about womanhood and women. The principle cast is entirely comprised of women, and there are no male dancers in the school. Here is an enclave of female artists walled off from a divided Germany, given space to create and to be. Some of their creation happens to be body-warping magic and eldritch terror, sure, but it is also a space of female empowerment. Power takes many forms, not all beautiful and certainly not all good. There’s a fascinating dichotomy, however: it’s primarily women in front of the camera, but behind the camera, the film is predominantly male, from Guadagnino’s direction to Kajganich’s script, and from Yorke’s score and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography and the dance choreography of Damien Jalet. I wonder how different Suspiria would be if more women worked behind the camera, or how differently I would perceive the film.
Yet maybe that is a kind of gendered wall in the making of the movie, mirroring the divide in Berlin, the split in time between Dr. Klemperer and his wife, the difference between Ohio and Germany (or the Amish and the Mennonites), or the dance academy and the rest of Germany as an outside world, or Madame Blanc and Helena Markos. Or maybe I am staring too deep into the blood blot of the movie and reading significance into a mere splotch of color. For some reason I cannot completely discount this version of Suspiria.
All these uncertain and unresolved feelings about Suspiria make me want to see it again. I may go during wide release just to see how violently the audience rejects this film. Even though I think certain parts of Suspiria are a total slog, and even if it doesn’t justify its two-and-a-half hour runtime, there’s something compelling about the core of this remake that speaks to me in some hidden language.
I’m not sure what it’s saying, and I’m not even sure I’ll like what it says if I’m able to decode it, but I’m drawn to the mysterious allure of the film. Maybe, like dance, there simply are no words for this feeling. This is another type of movie magic, the sort of incantation as a question cast by singular, beguiling works of art (even bad art): Why does this thing speak to me despite my qualms and what hidden thing does that reveal about me?