Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?
With Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino has done something really marvelous. He’s pulled off a remake that is truly what he said it was going to be: a sort of reverie on the first film, more than a straight remake. At almost a full hour longer than the original film, Guadagnino has plenty of time to dig deeper into some things and add some intriguing themes not present in the original. The story still revolves around a prestigious dance academy and the dark secrets it holds, but Guadagnino has expanded things marvelously by exploring issues of fascism and the way regimes both form and sustain themselves. By setting this film in a divided Berlin, Guadagnino is able to create a bleak picture of life traumatized by a violent past, haunted by guilt and shame. A big part of both the emotional impact of the film and the exploration of these ideas comes from the addition of a psychiatrist character, driven by the loss of his wife during the rise of Nazism to obsession over finding a young dance student who disappears in the first section of the film. But the idea is there in the dancing as well, which plays a magnificent role in the film; it’s harsh, modernist and violent, as we see in a truly bravura, absolutely brutal scene that cuts between Dakota Johnson’s new dance student performing and a violent beating & mutilation of a hapless victim being carried out elsewhere. If you haven’t gotten sucked into the film by that scene, it’s sure to grab you and make you sit up and take notice. It’s filmmaking as a purely visual medium; no other medium could have conveyed this scene and it’s Guadagnino at nothing short of the level of a master.
There are other masters present as well, or mistresses if you prefer. Tilda Swinton is wonderful here. She’s very restrained both as Madame Blanc, a seductive teacher at the academy, and as the vulnerable, haunted psychiatrist. She’s completely unrecognizable under all the makeup that is required to play Dr. Klemperer, but it’s a fully inhabited character from body language to vocal tone to facial expression and it may stand up as her most minimal performance and also one of her very best. Mia Goth is particularly wonderful as Sara, a student; she brings an easy charisma to the role, but when the film ultimately requires her to be creepy and terrifying, she is both. Some may quibble with Dakota Johnson’s performance in the lead, but I think her blankness is completely suitable and when it comes to her dancing ability, well, she performs magnificently as does the entire cast. A public performance of a group dance is really wonderful and Guadagnino draws a noose of tension that turns to dread during that whole scene. The film isn’t a particularly scary one, more one that’s taken up with a sense of creeping unease, but that scene is a knockout of terror.
The film certainly isn’t perfect. The attempt to shoehorn the Baader-Meinhof affair into the film kind of gilds the lily as far as the discussion of fascism in the film goes and probably should have been cut. Likewise, Guadagnino is also too taken with weirdness for its own sake at times; there’s a bizarre suicide partway through the film that really doesn’t have anything to do with anything and that entire character serves no real purpose. All of this is, I think, intended to build atmosphere, but it kind of pulled me out of the movie at times. And now, well, let’s get into spoilers because otherwise I can’t talk about the most divisive portion of the film.
When the film ultimately just goes into full-on horror, complete with fountains of blood, gyrating naked bodies, zombies (?), and a spate of heads literally exploding, it’s a bold and arresting decision and one that I go back and forth on. The appearance of the mysterious Markos, a third role played by Swinton, as well as the look of the prisoners of the coven is pulling no punches and the grotesquery crosses a line into a kind of cheesiness that does evoke the horror films of the seventies. It’s jarring, but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a failure or not. Maybe Guadagnino is trying to evoke that cheese and silliness as a deliberate call-back to the films that inspired this one, films that often had ridiculous cheesiness right next to nerve-shredding tension. I think he probably is and, on a second viewing, I’d probably get that more than I did on a first viewing. Still, there was probably a way to get at this contrast without making things quite as cartoonish. Likewise, the “twist” at the end is really telegraphed; it’s hard for me to imagine anyone not seeing that coming. But still, it is a great twist and it leads to what is this movie’s boldest decision which is to end a movie taken up with violence and horror and repression and gore on a note of grace.
Yes, there’s no denying that Johnson’s Mother Suspirium has come to wreak havoc and deal violence, but it’s a housecleaning, not a wrathful act of evil. When Swinton’s character, early in the film, discusses the need for dance to move beyond beauty, it plays right into the exploration of national trauma and how it shapes culture and art. But Mother Suspirium comes to reject that; the bitter generation is on the way out and after Susie has taken her rightful place at the head of the coven, she muses on the dancers, “Beautiful.” Likewise, the final scene is a picture of grace, a scene where, in an ironic subversion of Catholic ritual, the Mother, rather than the Father, grants absolution to a character haunted by guilt and shame. It’s a powerful and moving scene and it’s a real trick this movie has pulled by having such sincere emotion immediately after the kind of Grand Guignol bloodbath that has just happened.
Anyway, while the film has flaws, and some pretty substantial ones, it’s still a magnificent achievement, a filmmaking tour de force. It’s a film that was always going to be divisive. It wasn’t necessarily always going to be brilliant, though. But it is. Awe-inspiring, in a way. 4 stars.
tl;dr – strange, magnificent film is as divisive as it is brilliant; featuring bravura direction, wonderful performances & astonishing dance sequences, even substantial flaws can’t sink this film. 4 stars.