SUSPIRIA (2018). Failed homage to the original
Luca Guadagnino was fourteen years old when he watched Dario Argento’s horror film on television, and after that screening, his life was never the same. From that point on, he was obsessed with Suspiria, an obsession that, after more than three decades, transformed into an unorthodox remake, paying homage to the emotions he experienced back then.
I can completely relate to that because I had a similar experience when I was around the same age. I was already familiar with a portion of classic cinema and avidly watched everything that came my way. Suspiria, probably watched from a low-quality DivX file, showed me that I actually knew very little, that cinema could be something different, that it could go beyond storytelling, get under your skin, and induce a trance. Plots and dialogues suddenly ceased to matter; they were merely a supplement to the magic achieved through imagery, colors, camera movements, editing, and music. Since 1977, no film has managed to replicate that effect.
Luca Guadagnino’s decision not to replicate Dario Argento’s concept appears to be wise and deliberate. Trying to imitate the original would likely have been doomed to failure. However, it’s not true, as some may claim, that the younger Italian filmmaker merely borrowed the general outline of the plot from the older one. Guadagnino also takes a page from Argento in his use of the dying witch’s breath, the trajectory of slow, ominous close-ups, and his approach to filming dialogue scenes, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the source of the words and suggests non-verbal connections between the characters (in the original, this effect was due to poor dubbing synchronization, whereas here it’s an intentional technique). Everything else is intentionally different – instead of the vivid Technicolor reds, blues, and greens in Luciano Tovoli‘s cinematography, Guadagnino opts for muted and somber browns, grays, and yellows. The school building is no longer Gothic but brutalist, and the graceful ballet movements have been replaced by a violent contemporary dance.
Through such choices, Guadagnino decisively severs ties. The typical audience-oriented strategy of “see and compare” has no meaning in this case. Dance, which in the original film served as a cover for the Sabbath, here not only represents a form of expression but also a medium for testing the witch candidates and transferring energy between the characters. This is actually Guadagnino’s best idea, and it makes the first hour of Suspiria genuinely intriguing. However, everything that comes into the director’s hands eventually ends up in the same pot where Argento concocted the perfect brew four decades ago, and there’s no chance that an effective elixir will come out of it.
In the school, there’s a clash of characters, quickly evolving into an ambiguous relationship between the master (Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc) and the student (Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion). There’s also dance, which in the new Suspiria is a manifestation of magic and primal (but crucially, non-sexual) physicality. Outside, we have East Berlin in 1977, riots, and the Red Army Faction. There’s also psychoanalyst Josef Klemperer (again played by Tilda Swinton, this time under heavy makeup that disguises her), who tries to unravel the mystery of the dance school and find out what happened to his wife, whom he last saw during World War II. All of this adds up to 152 minutes of film. In one scene, Dr. Klemperer walks to his garden for about ten minutes, and Guadagnino shows us every stage of his sluggish journey. I’m sorry, but I really don’t know why.
Similarly to François Ozon’s approach in Double Lover, Guadagnino constructs a film scholar’s version of What’s My Line? There are so many trails here that they could be used to create several better films – psychoanalysis (to which Klemperer blatantly refers us), feminism, Nazism, modern art, and the history of contemporary political tensions. The script looks like a record of a philology student’s manic preparation for an exam, absorbing everything on the reading list. However, there is no order or restraint in this. (A side note: this is coming from someone who was enthralled by mother! and would readily defend The Neon Demon in a barroom brawl.)
As a result, trying to find meaning in the new Suspiria is essentially a futile endeavor (and it’s one of those films that’s very easy to defend). All you need to do is choose the elements that suit you, and build your interpretation from there. And if there are still some bloody smears left unaccounted for? Apparently, that’s not relevant. Even the most generous interpretations won’t change the fact that the whole Red Army Faction subplot is portrayed as if it were still the 1960s (thanks to the omnipresent televisions and radios that broadcast important news every time they’re turned on), every scene featuring Klemperer relentlessly slows down the film, and apparently no one informed Thom Yorke that wailing into a microphone doesn’t always work.
In this massive mess, perhaps only Tilda Swinton manages to stand out. She’s like an otherworldly creature molded from the same clay used to create Klaus Kinski and Christopher Walken. However, this isn’t a novelty, as Swinton’s peculiar energy makes her convincing almost every time, regardless of the character she plays. The downside is that Dakota Johnson isn’t a suitable counterpart for her. Guadagnino insisted on casting her (as in A Bigger Splash) in the role of an unassuming girl with hidden talents. This is clearly too much of a burden for Johnson, especially evident in the second half of the film.
When we finally, after two and a half hours of torment, reach the climax, Guadagnino treats us to a twist straight out of a penny dreadful story with chills and special effects that would be better suited for one of Argento’s later films, such as Mother of Tears or Dracula 3D (this is by no means a compliment). The problem with the new Suspiria ultimately turns out to be not the inability to compete with the original but the artistic scatterbrained approach of the director, who decided to throw all the toys into the same box.
So, instead of a dance school, we end up with a massive mess. All that’s left is to follow the title and sigh with sadness.