SUSPIRIA, Italy/US, 2018. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Malgorzaata Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. 152 minutes. Rated MA (Strong supernatural themes,violence, coarse language and nudity).
This is a remake, a re-interpretation (and then some, to say the least) of the 1977 horror-thriller directed by Dario Argento. It is considered something of a classic, now especially so in the mind and memory of Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I am Woman, A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name).
Whether Guadagnino has created a new classic is not so certain. While there have been some admirers, many who have written comments on this version have felt disappointed in comparison with the original, or have been bewildered, or thought it was just so much rubbish – some even suspecting that the director might have appeared after the final credits to jokingly tell us that it was all a hoax!
The original was made in 1977 and Guadagnino and his cowriter, David Kajganich (whose following film was the remake of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery), have decided that they would like to make many references to what was happening in Germany and Berlin at that time, where the old and the new Suspiria have been set, memories of World War II, memories of camps and betrayals, references to terrorism and the Baader-Meinhoff group, an RAF crisis. While this is significant, the references seem to be merely allusions, suggestions, verbal and visual, rather than explorations of the theme and connections to the characters and actions. (Although, there is an insertion later in the film where the psychiatrist meets his long-lost love whom he had betrayed – and is to be punished; and this interlude provides an opportunity for a cameo appearance by Jessica Harper, the original Susie).
Since the plot is about a coven of witches, audiences certainly expect it to be weird. As weird as this?
The film opens, somewhat frantically, with a dancer from an Academy seeking psychological help, mentally disintegrating before our eyes, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz). And then, a new dancer arrives from Ohio, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson after her 50 Shades films). She is ambitious. She is welcomed. There are memories of her growing among the Amish in Ohio. She makes friends with the other dancers, finds accommodation, shows instantly that she has danced talent. There are complications with her fellow dancer, Sarah (Mia Goth).
Dancing is important to the film. Those who love modern dance, contemporary choreography, may well be delighted by the very long sequences of dance, impressionistic, a work called Volk (‘ People’). There is a frantic score accompanying the dance, dance until one collapses…
And the staff at the dance Academy (a collection of significant European actresses) look and act weirdly (understatement). When it emerges that they are a coven of witches, that the head is a woman called Madame Markos, that there is some rivalry with the teacher who is held on a pedestal by the students, Madame Blanc. So, what is the will of the witches? What did they want with Patricia, to become part of the coven, the discovery of secret powers? What do they want with Susie – and what does she want?
In the performance of Volk, Susie collapses – and some transformation begins, a revelation of the witches, bizarre confrontations and deaths, the visualising of Madame Markos (very ugly fleshy creation) contrasting with the austere beauty of Madame Blanc.
It might be just as well that that there are no quizzes as audiences leave the cinema after 2 ½ hours to test whether they could explain the plot, characters, themes. Most would probably fail.
So, a step in the career of Luca Guadagnino, a reinterpretation of Dario Argento, a display of contemporary dance, an imagining of later 20th century witches (and their depiction and delineation seems more than a little misogynistic).
And the most amazing thing about the film is the presence of Tilda Swinton, extraordinary has always, and the revelation after the event that the make-up artists have been at work because she is also the professor – and she is also Madame Markos.
Transmission films Released 8th November
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.