Remaking Suspiria is a dicey proposition. Daria Argento’s 1977 film is a towering and effective mood piece. It straddles the line between being a nightmarish Technicolor fairy tale and feeling like a nasty snuff film conjured by its supernatural antagonist. Even with its dramatic shortcomings, it still remains one of horror cinema’s most grandiose creations.
To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 re-imagining is equally as startling and visionary. Taking the essential narrative spine of the original, the new film is about aspiring American ballet dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who enrols at a prestigious German dance academy. Under the tutelage of the company’s artistic director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Bannion is trained to become a more expressive and self-assured dancer. In reality, the young woman is being groomed for a ritualistic ceremony for a coven of witches.
Rather than presenting a heightened fable with primary colours bleeding onto the screen, Guadagnino employs a cold and stark colour scheme that exists somewhere between Kubrickian pristineness and documentary realism. The choice is crucial for serving the film’s 1977 West Berlin setting. In an interesting left turn from the original, the political turmoil in the midst of the German Autumn is frequently mentioned by characters in the narrative (in addition to radio and television broadcasts).
Consequently, the film has a pervasive historical weight. The choice feels like an interesting commentary on the events of the academy. The central dance piece (Volk) could be considered an embodiment of the German people and the witches’ infighting represents a war for whether or not the people have control of their artistic expression.
Tilda Swinton appears as three characters in the film. The choice is equally interesting in illustrating an internal battle for the German soul. Helena Markos (elected head witch of the coven) seeks to carry on the atrocities of the country’s blood-soaked past by preying on the young and innocent. Whereas, Dr. Josef Klemperer chooses to be the sole individual who will no longer turn a blind eye to the savagery. This is due to his experiences with his wife and the Holocaust. This is made all the more palpable when he says in the third act, “There are a lot of guilty men in Germany, I am not one of them.” Blanc exists in the middle as a complicit instigator, who in a sense is carrying out the orders of a ruling power much like many of the men and women who served under the Nazi regime.
At the same time, the instructor’s relationship with Bannion encapsulates the film’s preoccupation with motherhood. Blanc’s teachings about opening oneself and being part of something larger are as applicable to a young woman dealing with the problems of the external world as much as dancing. With this in mind, Bannion’s journey is equally about an awakening of maternal instincts and a literal ascension to motherhood.
Swinton casts the biggest impression as Blanc. Her maternal outpouring is illustrated in sweet and caring gestures that feel like an extension of her art form. As the young Bannion, Dakota Johnson impresses with a versatile physicality that lends her sequences a raw visceral power.
In fact, some of the film’s most striking moments wield Bannion’s swift balletic movements as an instrument of the witches’ will. One particular cross-cutting sequence disturbs in contrasting the euphoria of creative expression and the literal physical damage it has on a dancer’s body.
Aside from its nightmarish imagery and harrowing instances of cross-cutting, Suspiria truly got under my skin with its subdued moments. Like Roman Polanski, Guadagnino understands how to turn seemingly ordinary situations into instances of acute uneasiness. One sequence has an impressive continuous long shot that travels the full length of a kitchen. Throughout, we see dishes being clean and plates being put away. Whilst this is occurring, we hear a meeting between the members of the coven, who are voting on their new leader.
The sequence takes one of the appealing aspects of the original, which was this sense of the witches pervading every corner of the film, and filters that feeling through a prism of normalcy. The scene is additionally elevated by Thom Yorke’s beautifully haunting score that serves as a good replacement for Goblin’s assaultive prog rock music.
In many ways, Suspiria feels like the heir to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Like the 1980 film, it has a surreal moment that defies comprehension. At the same time, it also shares that film’s understanding of the horror coming from a slow creeping dread of the supernatural having complete sway over the mundane. Like Kubrick’s film, Suspiria presents the audience with a puzzle of a movie and invites them to fit its various pieces together.
This undoubtedly makes Suspiria an ambitious horror film. It may be trying to some, baffling to most, but for those who are seduced, it is a persistently engrossing and unnerving experience that admirably attempts to combine historical weight and primordial pathos.