Bodies have limits, and dance pushes those limits, trying to make the impossible look easy. The sounds of that effort are often masked by music, so it’s easy at times to forget the physicality of the dancers—to miss the thuds, the squeaks of sweaty skin skidding on the floor, the gasping and panting for breath. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria foregrounds that corporeality, mixing it with elements of the inexplicable, and the result is horrifying, maddening, transfixing, and transcendent. It’s the most ambitious, unsettling, confounding, and cathartic film of 2018: a bone-cracking body horror par excellence, a meditation on women’s power and history, a tale of ancient occultish matricide, and a worthy homage to the decades-old movie that inspired it.
Based on Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, Guadagnino’s Suspiria feels like new flesh molded around old bones and lit on fire. This Suspiria is not so much a remake, but a reimagining—or, to borrow from Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a “rebirth.” It retains the original’s setting and setup but digs its hooks into elements which Argento’s film floated past. The result is something much scarier, more chilling, more menacing, and wholly its own. Moreover, Guadagnino’s film is in constant dialogue with Argento’s iteration, re-contextualizing and rebelling against its story, characters, and even its visual style. In this way, Guadagnino’s approach is itself a part of the intricate thematic fabric of Suspiria.
Not simply content to reconstruct Argento’s gorgeously colorful slasher-ready kill sequences, Guadagnino instead opted to craft a pensive, near-three-hour examination of revolution, and its natural place within not only humanity, but the planet’s life cycle. The ancient “Three Mothers” are, in Guadagnino’s hands, no different than any other ruling class. The arrival of Susie Bannion (played here by Fifty Shades trilogy refugee Dakota Johnson) throws this established house into discord: Snow White becomes a new, twirling icon for upheaval.
Although Suspiria resists efforts at making “sense,” the basic premise follows wide-eyed American Mennonite Susie. She arrives at Berlin’s renowned Helena Markos Dance Company in 1977 against the backdrop of the German Autumn, just in time for the explosive death rattle of the Red Army Faction. That this film is set among a contemporary dance troupe in Berlin as it is recovering from war, grasped by an imposed rule, cowering from terror attacks, and grappling with its own sordid history makes for a perfect place to explore motifs of pain and discomfort. (this backdrop of German politics and chaos is something which I will have to defer to smarter people than I to write thinkpieces on). From there, the story directs the brunt of its attention toward the gothic interiors of the Helena Markos Dance Company, a colorless, stone kingdom that looks vaguely like a bank designed for depressions. Susie is the least experienced student at the all-female academy, but she makes a quick impression on the famous Madame Blanc.
Upon initially auditioning for the company, Susie is forced to dance without the aid of music, and it’s the first moment where we get a chance to witness just how riveting and physical Johnson’s performance as Bannion truly is. Guadagnino has always been a director in love with the way our bodies move and express themselves in rhythm (see: Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash). Here, Johnson twists, turns, and throws herself, as the director’s camera stays high, wide, and steady. After Madame Blanc takes Susie under her wing, she instructs her new pupil to “break the nose of everything beautiful”. Suddenly, every rehearsal is centered around Susie. As she improvises and thrashes about, Johnson’s body becoming a blunt, expressive instrument of rebellion, shedding years of religious repression before our eyes. This is what revolution looks like when filtered through personal art, and the actress perfectly captures the divine bliss that accompanies her form being set free for the first time in her life. Per usual, Tilda Swinton is utterly magnetic in this movie, instilling Madame Blanc with a still strangeness that’s just the right level of ominous. To elaborate on it is to veer into spoiler territory, but her performance is such that viewers will be completely filled with the terror, desire, sin and regret that she perennially exudes by the time this iteration of Suspiria reaches its brief, melancholic coda.
Suspiria is more web than timeline. That it starts the same year Argento’s film was released feels right: the spirit that animates Argento’s film feels reborn in Guadagnino’s, which, in a sense, is its point—a spirit of rebellion and subversion against authoritarian powers, particularly patriarchal ones. Female energy and crafty women working in secret, it suggests, are responsible for keeping the world’s creative heart beating, even while skirmishes and wars and insurrections fight to beat it down. The film is rife with symbolism about nationalism (the dance the Markos group performs is one that Blanc created in the wake of the war, meaningfully called “Volk,” or “people”), about women’s power against men (who in this film are often at the mercy of the dance academy mistresses once they step in its doors), and—perhaps most troublingly—about the complexity of that power yielded by women against one another.
I would have accordingly liked to have seen a Suspiria helmed by a woman who was as deeply affected by the story as Guadagnino was, and as willing to get tangled up in it and not try to untie it all; perhaps we’ll get that version in the future. In the meantime, it is impossible to ignore how skillfully Guadagnino dove into the material and came up with something all his own. Argento’s version of the story is noted not so much for its storytelling—which can be lightweight and campy at times—as for its visual style, which pulses with bright and bold colors, wild lighting, and surreal camera angles. Here, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me By Your Name) eschews the popping neon primary colors of Argento’s original for muted browns, blacks, and blues that infiltrate and dig deep into the viewer. Gone is the sun-splashed loveliness of Call Me By Your Name, replaced with the drab texture of a country under siege. And when it finally does slip into Argento’s visual style it’s all the more terrifying by contrast. Likewise, production designer Inbal Weinberg (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) replicates the engulfing expressionism of the architecture found in Argento’s original picture, but then transplants it into a rainy, tortured shell of Germany. Even where art is created in this fantastical vision of history, there is no vibrant joy to be found.
Guadagnino employs Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for the score to add a disorienting sonic texture to his take’s proceedings. A few of the tracks Yorke penned for Suspiria resemble his solo output: compositions comprised of simply piano and his ethereal voice that become disorienting and anachronistic thanks to the movie’s period setting. When the movie continues to descend into darkness, Yorke utilizes an atonal organ to thoroughly unsettle the audience, pulling us into the ambiance of these rituals before throwing us off-center with a perfectly placed note. Just as Guadagnino is keeping the bones of Suspiria‘s narrative intact while executing his own vision, hiring Yorke is a genius way to pay tribute to the idiosyncratic horror soundtracks Argento fancied, while distinctly doing his own thing.
Suspiria eschews the scary for the unnerving. It’s more elegiac than it is creepy or gross. Things get twisted and build to a delirious finale that’s debauched enough to satisfy even the most hardcore gore-hounds, but Guadagnino undercuts—almost sabotages—the scenes that threaten to privilege bloody spectacle over the river of sorrow that flows beneath it. Light on jolts and “holy shit” moments, the film prefers to make your skin crawl through the dull terror of memory, the red stain of guilt, and the sickening historical truth that the members of a coven (or the people of a country) are more likely to absolve each other of their collective sins than hold themselves accountable. Upon initial viewing, Suspiria is an overwhelming experience, a work of art every bit as complex and visceral as the mesmerizing production performed by Madame Blanc’s company of dancers. Every frame, every character, and each narrative pirouette in Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining is infused with significant meaning—making it near-impossible to fully comprehend without witnessing it more than once. This new Suspiria is a dense, defiant, confrontational work of artistic terrorism, bubbling over with ideas that demand repeat viewings to unpack, like a torturous three-hour filmic nesting doll.
As grim and severe as Argento’s film was ecstatic and harlequin, this Suspiria offers a richer, more explicit interpretation of that old nightmare; it digs up the latent anxieties of that story like someone picking at a scab and watching with a queasy mix of horror and delight as the pus seeps out and makes everything literal. Those ideas don’t always have the emotional force to justify the degree of self-harm, but Guadagnino’s wicked opus ultimately cares more about the scars it leaves behind than it does the violence that caused them or might cut them open again.