'Suspiria': The art of gore
To call Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” sensual is to imply that it has sense. Yet, neither is it nonsense, really. This story, about a naive dancer from Ohio attending a conservatory in Berlin and learning a coven of witches exists between the walls, isn’t otherworldly as much as it is netherworldly, set in a reality resembling our own, but warped along the edges, and the longer one investigates that distorted fringe, the more logic is stretched, twisted, shattered and discarded, inspiring shock, disgust and a wholly hypnotic immersion in grotesque fancy.
If I write elliptically, and meander through corridors of linguistic obfuscation, I do so in the spirit of the film. It finds Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) taking out the trash in Dario Argento’s artsy-trashy 1977 giallo classic “Suspiria,” and replacing it with intentionally pretentious provocation. The original is beloved by a rabid cult of appreciators -- I exist along the fringe of the worshipful -- for its unapologetic exercise in style: Gobs of primary-red syrup gushing and coagulating on stylized setpieces as its unforgettable score, by wacky prog-rockers Goblin, tinkles and chants eerily. The film is about nothing but its own atmospheric indulgences, and is all the better for it.
Guadagnino’s reimagining (“remake” does no justice to its intent) retains the suffocating insularity of the original. Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, the American dancer in East Berlin, 1977, visiting the lauded conservatory for an audition and, hopefully, an extended stay. She has a literal skip in her step as she makes her way to the building, where she’ll be hemmed in by omnipresent rain and the threat of violent political strife on the streets outside. Oh, and the mystery of what’s happening down the darkest corridors of the conservatory, and behind the mirrored walls of the audition room, where she performs a dance so violent and possessed, she immediately fits right in, and earns the praise of Madame Blanc, the exacting headmistress played by Tilda Swinton.
The mere mention of Swinton in any context invariably makes me pause, or stumble, or fawn in fascination, so please forgive me this moment. Known for her eccentricity, Swinton can eclipse the sun in any picture that demands it. She’s something of a muse for Guadagnino, having starred in “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” the latter also alongside Johnson. This new “Suspiria,” however, has no true anchor in terms of theme, character or visual technique, although Swinton is the closest thing to it, silently manifesting the bold, invigorating feminist rage fueling most of the story’s subtextual engine. And yet, she mostly reins in her arresting bombasticity and lets the film eclipse her, for better, most likely, or for worse, maybe, because it really is a splattered display of contrived suggestivity, a roiling mass of thematic snakes hissing willy-nilly atop Medusa’s head. So to speak.
And here, I must of course note how Swinton also plays a male character under the phony actor name Lutz Ebersdorf. The character is a stooped old man, Dr. Josef Klemperer, who’s clued in to the occult goings-on at the conservatory by a crazed patient, played in an extended cameo by Chloe Grace Moretz. His investigation of the dance organization is a primary plot arrow cutting through the strange. What precisely this casting gimmick is supposed to suggest, I’ll leave to the scholarly overanalysts of the internet. Having only seen the film once and found it amazing and gripping and many other active adjectives, yet impossible to fully digest, I’ll assert that it’s weirdness for its own sake, and move on to the approximately 10,000 other things the film presents to us.
OK, I’ll focus on just a few of those things. One is the leadership circle Madame Blanc oversees, all female of course, and all terrifying and funny in their malevolent mischief. They discuss a hierarchy of three mothers -- a frequent motif in mythology ranging from the ancient Greeks to Neil Gaiman -- and some sort of fight for succession. Another thing is Johnson, who’s buttery and seductive as a cornpone capable of subverting expectations about her mental and physical dexterity; and somewhere in a field in rural America lays her mother, snoring in a coma with her eyes open in a dead-creepy stare, seeing nothing and perhaps everything. Tied into all this is the film’s multiple instances of feminine assertions of power, which transcends being an undercurrent and becomes an undertow, as the film gets deeper, darker and crazier.
And then there’s the film’s horror component, which is blindingly nasty, albeit in a most artful manner, of course. Those hoping for frequent bloodlettings will gnash their teeth as the 150-minute film takes its sweet time getting to the money. Some elements are more functional than others -- the first instance is a bit of body horror that really churns the butter in your guts, but the ending is a thrashing hodgepodge of slow motion and curious editing that undermines its effectiveness. Earlier scenes offer more significant impact.
I’ll list other things I wrote down while watching this “Suspiria.” The words “simulacrum,” “perverse,” “sexual” and “disturbed.” A question: When does the virgin become the violator? One of the title cards: “Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin.” The idea that Madame Blanc was famous as a war resister, and now she’s a notorious coven sister. A note about how the physical sets of the dance company building and its dormitories don’t seem to make any logistical sense. A quote: “It’s a hot thing we do.” (The film certainly made me sweat.) I’m not sure how all of these observations fit into this review, but I felt like sharing them anyway -- and yes, that too is in the spirit of this brilliantly confounding mess of a film.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Malgorzata Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Run time: 152 minutes