Director: Luca Guadagnino
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 152 Minutes
Straddling an ambiguous line that separates the profane from the sacred, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a tightly wound curiosity that is as densely layered as it is viscerally effective.
A film destined to be a recurring gift to academic papers, based on how many disciplines it can be unfurled into, Guadagnino and scriptwriter David Kajganich draw upon the conceptual underpinnings of Argento’s stylized-but-straightforward original to masterfully craft a fascinating object of their own creation, which rewards the more it is left to simmer in the consciousness.
Unabashedly aspiring to that “high horror” distinction typified by the likes of The Witch and Hereditary, it excels through captivating your senses and absorbing you completely into its atmosphere. This is guaranteed to polarize audiences, with good reason, but even those who turn their noses up at it will be forced to concede that the sinister craftsmanship on display is intoxicating. Those familiar with the original will be able to identify straight away the moment where this reimagining departs into its own, bleaker world.
Suzie Banion (Dakota Johnson) remains the young, driven dancer who travels to Germany to audition for the respected yet secretive Markos Dance Company that’s run by a cabal of matronly instructors overseen by the chair, Madame Blanc (an exquisite Tilda Swinton). Updated to take place during the German Autumn of 1977, the Tanz academy seems to exist completely outside of this societal context, as the students of Blanc ritualistically practice their primal choreography and Suzie gradually succumbs to the mysterious machinations going on behind the oppressively modern architecture of the school.
Concurrently, a psychiatrist (Lutz Ebersdorf…sure) conducts his own investigation into the school after a patient and former student hysterically accuses the school as being a front for a coven of witches before suddenly disappearing. Loosely strung along as we are through Guadagnino’s vision, the film achieves an overwhelming dream-like quality as it slowly and deliberately rolls out its plot while simultaneously keeping you in the dark.
Questions for clarity will routinely pop into your mouth while watching, but due to the powerfully evocative cinematography, editing and set design, you become fully engaged and chilled to the bone to ever speak up and dispel the mystery of it all. It is unfortunate to see Guadagnino exchange the gaudy colours of Argento’s for a frankly overplayed muted, wintery grey palette, yet this minimal approach ultimately betters the atmosphere to which he aspires.
Much like its “high horror” equivalents, Suspiria doesn’t trade in sudden shocks to the system (as Argento did) as it desires to infect that system with dread and unsettling distress. There was nary a scream to be heard in my screening but that was mostly because the film silenced the crowd so efficiently that one could hear a pin drop.
Where the film shows the most ambition is Kajganich’s socio-political dimension which, unfortunately, feels arbitrarily grafted on. Though I believe the intention was to display how the maternal system of the Markos School can function productively outside of the fraught dealings of Germany’s patriarchy outside its walls, in execution, this bears little fruit for the film’s effectiveness.
With a runtime pushing three hours, I would imagine this extraneous context would be the reason many gave up on the new Suspiria, and I cannot say I blame them. Although the themes of Germany’s generational guilt it puts forth are superbly incorporated, the real intrigue lies with its exploration of the dynamics of motherhood, and anything that distracts from that I’m inclined to view as a negative.
It is doubtless this rousing departure from the original will polarize its audience, as it lives and dies by its ability to provoke you with its obscure storytelling and evocative imagery. Yet the film is so loaded with qualities that even the most skeptical of horrors attempts to elevate itself to “high art” can find an entry point into this disturbing tale of dance and witchcraft.
The performances are unanimously strong; the visuals fascinate as they unsettle; the coupling of Thom Yorke’s score with Damien Jalet’s choreography works wonders for senses; and Guadagino works tirelessly to charge every shot with a textual menace with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. It is doubtful that the film will polarize upon initial reactions, but this is the type of film that needs to stir under the skin for awhile before a proper appreciation can manifest.
Though unapologetic in how differently it approaches tone, style and narrative from the glossy Argento classic, as a companion piece, Suspiria fleshes out the ideas present in the original and elevates them to a grandiose distinction, well worthy of carrying the same name.