SUSPIRIA: Unpleasant, Unnerving, and Unbelievably Good

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LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 16: (L-R) Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth attends the UK Premiere of "Suspiria" & Headline Gala during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival on October 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI)

How do you solve a problem like Suspiria? It is not an easy question to answer. The 1977 classic horror film has perplexed, intrigued, frustrated, amazed, and indeed, frightened people for 41 years. Dario Argento‘s masterpiece dares you to look away with everything from its unnaturally vibrant and striking imagery to its piercing Goblin score. The original leaves a looming hot pink shadow. So how do you remake it?

The answer, at least for director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich, is not to remake but to sidestep.

SUSPIRIA: Not Remade. Reimagined.

Much like the original film, Suspiria is a supernatural horror story about Dakota Johnson as Susie (“Suzy” in the original, if we’re keeping score), a ferociously talented but unschooled ballerina from the States who finds herself in Berlin attending a prestigious and competitive dance academy. The year is 1977. Outside it rains non-stop. Explosions and political riots are a constant reminder of the violence of the outside world. But in these walls, they make art.

Indeed, all else fades away as Susie confidently steps in for the lead who has vanished under, shall we say, mysterious circumstances. She juts and thrusts around the stage, drawing attention from the dancers in the company, but most importantly, drawing the eye of Madame Blanc, played by the snakelike Tilda Swinton.  

Impressed by her immediate and raw talent, Swinton takes Susie under her wing, training her, breaking her, and rebuilding her into something more. The movie almost fetishistically worships the body, but not the female body as so many directors might fall victim to. Rather, it worships the human body and all its capabilities and limitations.

In one of the film’s more devastating and disturbing scenes, Susie performs for the company, twirling, kicking, lunging, and, unbeknownst to her, destroying another dancer in another room. I won’t spoil how, but the sight made me put down my popcorn, that’s for sure.

Meanwhile, an aging psychotherapist named Dr. Josef Klemperer begins to investigate the company after their lead/his patient vanishes. One of the dancers, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, claims that they are witches, and he comes to realize that she is more right than he could have ever imagined.

The Dancers

The film stars Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Tilda Swinton.

Dakota Johnson is most well known for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, but when it comes to raw sexuality, those films have nothing on this. It really does feel like she’s upping the ante of what sex is in cinema. “Oh, you think a little rope play is sexy? Well get a load of how I dance. This isn’t titillation. This IS sex!”

Susie becomes a carnal creature, writhing on the floor, displaying herself. We see throughout the film that she is innocent, blushing and giggling at the sight of a naked man. She describes the feeling of a dance as “what it must be like to fuck” not a man, nor woman, but an animal. And when she dances, a black, clawed, fur-covered hand claws at the floorboards, dying to be released. This is her story, but only just. She shares it with many other characters. But the JOURNEY is hers, and it is one of sexual maturity as she grows from a wide-eyed girl from the sticks, to a sensual dancer lost in her own body, to a woman, fully formed, stroking her sternum with her fingers and standing amongst the mothers as the newest and most vital member of their clan.

Johnson spent two years learning ballet for the film, and it shows. Her movements are intense, personal, and intentional. She simply moves, and you are drawn to her. This movie plays with the idea that witches cast their spells through movement rather than some sort of potion, and Johnson makes you feel it here, as the character becomes more and more aware of her “power.”

Mia Goth, famed for A Cure For Wellness, continues her career as a porcelain doll come to life and haunts my dreams. Her open lips and glassy eyes give me nightmares and I’m not ashamed to admit it. In this film, she serves as a confidant to Susie, but as Susie becomes more and more successful, Goth dives deeper into the mystery of what is going on behind these mirrored rooms. While she isn’t asked to carry any heavy lifting scenes, there is a bone-shatteringly intense moment towards the ending that is so human, the whole crowd had to look away.

If there is one low point in this movie, it is Chloe Grace Moretz who started out as a cute, foul-mouthed little kid in films like (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass. But I always wondered what would become of her after the “oh my gosh, a kid said the c-word” effect wore off. The answer is not much, and while the ending of this film is a bombastic experience for the senses, I found her inclusion to be distracting in the extreme.

However, the actor I think most people will come out of this movie talking about is Tilda Swinton. This marks her fifth collaboration with Luca Guadagnino, including The Protagonists, Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory, I Am Love, and A Bigger Splash.

Tilda Swinton is credited as three different characters here and I refuse to give them away, but what I will say is that this casting choice is more than a gimmick. Swinton is not Eddie Murphy in Norbit. Her performance as the three characters is a tool, tying these characters to the theme: the abuse of power, either as the abuser or those who have suffered from the abuse. Her primary role is that of Madame Blanc, an aging dancer who is casting the role that she created in the ballet Volk. The movie wastes no time in confirming your suspicions that she might be a witch, but what sets Swinton apart is the empathy she has for the here and now. Her determination to banish the past and focus on her children is magnetic and powerful. She composes herself in simple dress with elegant moves. Watch her hands. She has the best hands in the business.

The World and Tone of Suspiria

I mentioned before that this film is radically different than the original. And that’s a good thing. You really can’t beat Dario Argento at his own game, so don’t even try.

Moments in the trailer (shots of maggots on faces, for example) had me worried that this would be a remake of the original by covering the same ground, but I was pleased to find that this wasn’t the case. Instead, the movie shifts its focus. It is not about a young dancer finding her way around a haunted academy, but about motherhood, female sexuality, and control.

As I said, I refuse to spoil the ending, but it certainly gives MANDY a run for its money as the most screwed up, vibrantly colored ending of the year.

Goblin’s score for the original film is as iconic as the film itself. This film subverts that expectation with the help of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who brings a deep, pulsing verve to this soundtrack. I imagine he’ll receive an Oscar nomination come awards season.

Argento’s use of color in the original is so iconic as to be a detriment to all those who try to copy it. This film, instead, goes for the polar opposite, featuring a bleak, cold, dispassionate color palette that has never seen a primary color. Remember all those dreary days at school? When it was raining before you even woke up, and you waited for the bus in a raincoat, and when you got to school all life was gone and you sat in the cold and waited for lunch? Suspiria is two and a half hours of THAT.

Last Word On Suspiria

Suspiria is a film most people will not like or even enjoy. It is as long as films like A Cure For Wellness, and just as slow and distressing (though much better and more confident). It is easily an hour longer than the original, and unrepentantly negative, cold, and unsettling.

Many people are going to walk out of this movie asking “what did I just watch?!” and for good reason. This movie is as unnerving and upsetting as Guadagnino’s last film, Call Me By Your Name, was warm and romantic.

2018’s Suspiria is a confounding achievement. I’d be lying if I said I totally “got” it, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

For more movie reviews, check out LWOS Life: Movies.

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