Luca Guadagnino has concocted a witches’ brew of primal sisterhood that isn’t for the faint of heart or patience. Nor should it be. It’s a visually and morally challenging film that will leave you pondering its existence and meaning long after you’ve left the theater.
The setting of Berlin in 1977 for the new Suspiria (the same year Argento’s original version was released) is presented against the backdrop of the Baader-Meinhoff hostage crisis. It’s always on a television in the background, absorbing attention. Existing in a divided city it feels that at nearly every turn as if the riots and fighting will break through the concrete walls of the monolith building that houses the dance studio and centuries of secrets.
The film opens with a deliriously edited sequence involving an escaped dancer, Patricia, played by Chloë Grace Moretz in a brief cameo. Visiting Dr. Josef Klemperer (who is played by ‘Lutz Ebersdorf’ but is actually the first character Tilda Swinton plays, under a stunning amount of makeup), she details rituals and witchy behavior at the dance studio which Klemperer chalks up to paranoid delusions. “Delusion is a lie that tells the truth,” he says at one point. But he senses something underneath her rants and her disappearance sparks him to action. He also struggles with his own demons, having been separated from his wife Anke (a great cameo by Jessica Harper from the original film) during the Nazi occupation of Berlin and never receiving closure on her fate all these years.
We are then introduced to our protagonist Susie Bannion (a never better Dakota Johnson, who’s sometimes aloofness as an actress works beautifully here), an escapee herself of sorts. She’s a fresh-faced farm girl from Ohio running from her restrictive Mennonite family. “The Amish separated from the Mennonites because they were becoming too liberal,” she says. Another thread in the theme of division that is woven through the fabric of the film. Susie is extraordinarily talented. Her audition is such a revelation that the head of the studio, Madame Blanc (enter another Tilda Swinton, finding the middle ground between Pina Bausch and Martha Graham and with a stunning wardrobe of gowns that make her look 7ft tall), immediately embraces her. “Dance is no longer happy or cheerful. We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” she says to Susie in a moment of bonding. Playing at her most Swintonian, she juggles three wildly different characters (I won’t spoil the third, although you probably already have been) with razor-sharp precision. She deserves to be in the Supporting Actress Oscar conversation for this.
When an older dancer, Olga (Elena Fokina), is unable to complete a complicated routine (the World War II era Volk that Madame Blanc created decades earlier) and fights back in spite and anger, no one feels comfortable or accomplished enough to take her place. Susie steps up to the challenge (with a bit of supernatural assistance from Blanc). The choreography here, and in every dance, by Damien Jalet is so forceful, so sharp. As Olga is locked into one of the studios’ mirrored rooms, she becomes inextricably intertwined with Susie’s movements and is thrown around like a voodoo doll until she’s left broken, contorted and unrecognizable. It’s a harrowing sequence, the first explosion of violence in the film and it’s appropriately upsetting.
Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom keep some visual elements of the era (the 70s crash zoom, canted angles) but otherwise completely eschews the original’s aesthetic. Gone are the bright, neon hues and in its place the darkest and gloomiest browns and greys imaginable (well, until the ending). There isn’t a single day without rain or snow. It’s a supremely oppressive environment, inside and out. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke provides the film’s score which is alternately classic and deeply Yorke and perfectly modulated at every moment.
When we finally get to the presentation of Volk, with each jerk of the dancers’ bodies, the crimson red yarn of their costumes is expelled from their bodies like blood spatter. Often like a series of contortions and unsettling stabbing, jabbing motions. This final number is just the precursor to the afterlife after-party that ensues, establishing itself in the pantheon of one of the boldest, most graphic and bloody sequences ever for a major motion picture, certainly since the audacious mother! It’s clear that a great deal of the gore had to be tempered to just tuck itself under an R-rating. The most vivid vivisections are drowned in such dark red lighting that you’ll squint to who’s being eviscerated. Mother Markos is a truly horrific creation; a postulating, barely human sloth of a creature (in sunglasses! At night!), angling for her final chance at rebirth.
The most thrilling element of the film, of Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich’s version of it, is that it’s not concerned with the ins and out of witchcraft or magic. It’s a richly feminist take on sorority and sisterhood through the lense of the absurd and by systematically removing the patriarchy as an obstacle, much less an element (outside of Klemperer there are only two male speaking roles, two detectives both reduced to playthings for the coven). For some that may be a wall too high to climb but for those that do you’ll find a thoroughly uncompromising vision that is bound to polarize as much as it will mesmerize.
Suspiria is in limited release now from Amazon Studios with expansion in the coming weeks.