On motherhood, musicality and the cheap exploitation of historical trauma in a reimagined Suspiria
Suspiria Amazon Studios
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: David Kajganich, based on a 1977 screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolidi
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Malgorzata Bela and Chloë Grace Moretz
Rated R / 2 hours, 32 minutes / 1.85:1
November 9, 2018
(out of four)
The Hollywood musical of the mid-20th Century and the Italian horror film of the 1960s and '70s are platonic twins separated at birth, their shared Technicolor lineage tapping into very different but equally colorful parts of the imagination. These grand hallucinations open up the subconscious in a way that achieves a sort of cinematic purity, the precise ostentatiousness of their sets, costumes and lighting setups - coupled with the choreography of their dancing and their violence, respectively - generating a uniquely expressionistic space. Mercifully, there's not a hint of realism in sight.
Just as even the most cheerful of musicals can evoke fever-dream impressions, so too can the nightmarish images and events within that style of Italian horror - Dario Argento and Mario Bava being its most notable practitioners - take on a soaring, even buoyant musicality. Argento's rightfully iconic Suspiria takes place at a distinguished dance academy; the new remake - helmed by Call Me by Your Name and I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino - follows suit, but unlike its predecessor it includes extended dance sequences. Auditions, rehearsals, staged performances alike. And yet despite that emphasis, Guadagnino fails to get any musicality out of those movements, those rhythms. He strains for a kind of physical poetry, the dancers being used as expressions of symbolic and proxy violence - Frank Kruse's sound design memorably accentuates every slap of flesh on the hardwood dance floor, the tempestuous whip of arms and legs slicing through the musty air - but any musical sensuality is strangely absent. This is not the fault of Damien Jalet's choreography nor the actresses' physical efforts, but the way Guadagnino frames and edits it all, which seems to actively resist participation in the dance.
The following is not a comparison, because the two Suspirias are doing such resolutely different things (to this version's credit), but an illustration of wildly divergent chemical reactions: While Argento transformed bodies and shadows and blood into music, Guadagnino takes dancing and contortion and volcanic physical butchery and makes a still-life of it. He accomplishes the rare task of making both dancing and violence feel, at times, motionless.
Then again, musicals and horror films have also proven they can convincingly reckon with world wars, the Holocaust, and terrorism; Guadagnino's Suspiria can't do that, either.
It's not for lack of trying. The remake - written by Guadagnino's A Better Splash collaborator David Kajganich - parasitically attaches itself to historical atrocity and political unrest, a thematic gambit that operates hand in hand with its examination of womanhood, motherhood and female bodies. (Which seems equally crass in its opportunism.) The notion of performers as vessels for artistic expression takes on a pointed feminine significance - one inseparable from the film's consideration of national identity, political legacy, and power itself. The bodies under the dominion of the renowned Helena Markos Dance Academy are both a method of sacrifice and a conduit for revolution, their greatest creation an act of destruction.
Who or what actually wields control over the students is a secret (at least for a while) in the original film, but this version drops all pretense, quickly acknowledging the coven that presides over the academy. In fact, we even get a backstage pass, joining them as they go about preparing a meal while casually taking a leadership vote between Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the academy's namesake, Mother Markos herself, whose absence from her own reaffirmation owes to the rumored decrepitude of her [current] body. Something else seems to be brewing for these witches - beyond simply their ongoing preparations for a performance of a (fictional) piece called Volk. Whatever it is, the arrival of a new student, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) - a lapsed Mennonite who made her way from rural Ohio to Berlin just for the chance to audition - is somehow a decisive component of it.
Susie becomes a favorite of both Madame Blanc, the head instructor, and a fellow student named Sara (A Cure for Wellness' Mia Goth), who needs a friend after her last one, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), disappeared. Just before Susie's arrival, in fact. Sara's not the only one still haunted by Patricia's disappearance - her psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, hidden behind impressive prosthetics and the alias "Lutz Ebersdorf"), is sniffing around, unnerved by what he initially took to be paranoid ramblings about witches but has come to believe may be something altogether more sinister.
Dr. Klemperer's would-be investigation forms a hefty subplot that seems to exist almost entirely for thematic reasons. His presence, and his personal backstory, laboriously ties the film to World War II, part of an extended (read: 152-minute) campaign to attain a certain historical relevance and dramatic profundity. Nothing says Take Me Seriously quite like a trip to a concentration camp. And so off we go.
As thoroughly reimagined as this Suspiria may be, it feels like it's based on a clumsy exercise in free association from one version to the next. The original story was set in Germany? Oh, perfect, we'll do the Holocaust. Of course. The original movie was made in 1977? Hey, that's the year of the German Autumn! Let's toss in the RAF and Lufthansa hijacking and all that 1977 shit. Y'know, for depth. The original was part of the Three Mothers trilogy? Ooh, moms, that's good, let's really hammer home the motherhood angle. I want cutaways to our main character's dying mother and I want lots of 'em.
What Guadagnino and Kajganich came up with strikes me as one of those movies that feels the need to prove it's smart, prove it's a deeper thinker than those other movies about witches. I don't mean to be flip, because I certainly have no objection to expanding this or any other genre story into a broader cultural excavation or allegorical experiment. But Suspiria's grandiose attempt settles on far too easy a reference point.
Stop using the Holocaust as your go-to metaphorical connective tissue.
Trouble is, that failed attempt at profundity distracts from the other virtues of what is, in a lot of ways, an impressive accomplishment. Even the heavily grey and otherwise subdued color scheme - such an aggressive counter to Argento's dazzling reds and blues - makes a striking impression, reflecting the film's internal sense of cold despair instead of the nightmarish psychological intensity of its predecessor. The film as a whole is sonically brilliant; Thom Yorke's score evokes as peculiar a mood as just about anything I've heard this year. Or moods, rather. Hymnal one moment, primal and agitated the next. Sometimes it sounds like it's in mourning.
This is not a movie I take any pleasure in disliking - in fact, I'm not even sure I dislike it. It's a fascinating piece of work, and the craftspeople have done a bang-up job pretty much top to bottom. It's the big-picture objective that fails them, making this absorbing yet obnoxious incarnation of Suspiria less than the sum of its parts. The film was built on big ideas; it just doesn't have any.