Film Review: Suspiria

Dario Argento’s Suspiria hit Italian theatres in 1977 before its American distribution. It begins with a climax: Suzy Bannion in deep anxiety, an otherworldly airport, Goblin’s bending soundtrack, a migraine aura of colour, a taxi hailed in driving rain, a woman fleeing through a forest, all of it culminating in the drawn-out murder of Pat Hingle, neck broken, hanged from industrial cable, dress bloody from her excavated heart, the camera tracking down her body to the collateral kill of her friend, Sonia, on the floor below, an enormous glass shard bifurcating her head - the aftermath of this double homicide like a piece of installation art. The scene is indelible, these first 14 minutes of Argento’s Suspiria;  legendary.

At a recent screening of Suspiria (1977) at the Astor Cinema in Melbourne I attended, the audience applauded Pat Hingle’s gruelling death, kudos for the character having endured it for our entertainment. But after this bravura opening, Argento - and his audience with him - do not quite know what to do. Unintentional laughs crept in at the stilted performances, then there was boredom and restlessness as the movie loses its dynamism altogether. People  getting up and going to the bathroom; confident they would not miss anything of consequence, or not caring if they did. Argento doesn’t even bother to properly conclude Suspiria - the movie just stops, its ending absurdly abrupt.

It’s not a case of  Suspiria  (1977) simply being a dated film that's becoming misunderstood through no fault of its own, but instead, the fault of a world moving on around it having lost its patience. Movies are not of their time, they are of their minds. A screening at The Astor, say, of David Lynch’s, Eraserhead (a horror film of a bleaker palette), would not elicit the same sniggers in the audience as  Suspiria  did during my screening of it. Eraserhead was also released in 1977.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977)

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977)


So what possessed Luca Guadagnino to remake it?


Privately, Guadagnino, who directed the acclaimed film adaptation Call Me By Your Name (2017), would know he is a more accomplished filmmaker than Dario Argento. It is telling that he brought in Thom Yorke to score the soundtrack while Argento’s house progressive rock band Goblin is still active. Goblin is the emblem of Argento’s best-known movies, and frankly elevate his filmography to a circle of discussion it wouldn't otherwise be in, but the band have nowhere near a Kid A in their discography. 

Guadagnino also found himself in hot water for loving artist, Ana Mendieta, too much. This resulted in a very public dispute where the artists’s estate sued the studio for copyright infringement. This is a problem of aesthetics Argento has blissfully avoided (the offending images have since been excised, a select group of people having seen a version of the film that has vanished).

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The fervour surrounding the 2018 remake of Suspiria is of a loyal horror audience, keen to see what Argento’s impactful - but somewhat juvenile and incoherent movie - would look like in surer, more sophisticated hands. None more excited than Luca Guadagnino himself.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria has a literary feel to it, and the pace of a novel. The film unfolds in 6 acts and an epilogue (and a cryptic post-credit sequence I need to see again). Time is spent dwelling on people reading books and diaries. Conversations are natural, languid, not clipped for dramatic effect. The camera studies its interiors, lingers on oddments on desks and shelves, and moves through its rooms as one moves through a museum - stopping to appreciate exhibits, a little at a time. One has to acclimatise to Suspiria , it will not be rushed, but once you have settled in and found your place, the film will thank you for your patience.

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Dakota Johnson plays student dancer, Susie Bannion; an American of a strict family upbringing who is drawn from Ohio to attend a prestigious dance academy in West Berlin that is run by a coven of witches. It is her journey into the bowels of this coven that Suspiria’s narrative explores.

Tilda Swinton plays Madame Blanc, famous dancer, powerful witch, and director of the dance academy who forms a bond with Susie. Swinton also plays kindly psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer, who is with us from Act 1 to the Epilogue, on a journey of his very own. 

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Swinton plays both characters with deep humanity, and with her strong voice, she commands them: the diaphragmatic modulation of Blanc’s dance instruction, delivered in verse, mesmerising us and her students, and the feeble croak of the elderly Dr. Klemperer through which his depth of wisdom is loud and clear. In an act of quantum mechanics Swinton could conceivably be competing against herself for a Best Supporting Actress Nomination in one and the same film.

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All is not happy in the coven. Madame Blanc loses narrowly to Mother Markos in a vote among the witches - conducted in ESP - as to who should be director of the academy. But Markos is in a state of putrefaction in the basement. In order to rejuvenate Markos, she must be fed dance students and this is the source of conflict in the coven. 

One of the witches, Pavla, (played by Fabrizia Sacchi) is shown scene after scene, watching the horror unfold around her before she finally opts out in spectacular fashion. Other witches take to the ritual with relish. Madame Blanc herself is divided on the matter and this is where her relationship with Susie complicates - at once wanting to protect her and observe the strict rules of the coven.  

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There is hardly a man to be seen in Suspiria (even if you count Swinton’s Dr. Klemperer). The one actual male that is featured at all, is made an object of ridicule, Agent Glockner (Mikael Olssen) invited into the Dance Academy inquiring about a missing student, only to be magically frozen in place, pants around his ankles, the witches playing with his sidearm and laughing at his sorry penis. Guadagnino shows us how women might hold and wield incredible power. Men hold onto power because they believe themselves to be nothing without it, and they wield it bluntly and indiscriminately to maintain pride.

The witches of the dance academy accept that they happen to be powerful, and they wield that power playfully for their own amusement, or when it is expedient to do so, sometimes to devastating effect. Madam Blanc literally wrenches the high-leaping talent off dancer, Caroline, deleting years of her training, and transfers it to Susie so that she may stay in the air, away from the clutches of Mother Markos scratching under the floor beneath. In one sad scene, Dr. Klemperer is cruelly lured to the Academy chasing a vision of a longed-for reunion that is shattered by a witch’s shriek. And then there’s the horrific contortion of Olga, twisted by the kinetic ventriloquism of Susie’s manic dance, left folded in half, mewling in her own urine.

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Guadagnino firmly grounds all of this in a dreary 1977 West Berlin. The wall is up, the Red Army Faction is wreaking havoc. This historical context is not tacked on, rather it tames the fantastic into the comprehensible, making the horror that abounds all the more real. Suspiria could be a reading of the rise of the Third Reich, or of Donald Trump to U.S. President.

It also occurred to me that Suspiria may be an unconscious reimagining of Pasolini’s Salò,or the 120 Days of Sodom , but instead focusing solely on the revered women of the piece on whose careers as Prostitutes the word ‘Sadism’ really stems.

By its heart-rending Epilogue, it is clear that Suspiria is not a remake of Argento’s film at all. Guadagnino eschews everything that has made Argento’s film famous. It is merely the worm of an idea for Luca Guadagnino to express in himself something great - his own Suspiria. And if it’s Argento’s schlocky Giallo flick that has caused this masterpiece, then we have at least that for it to thank.

10/10 

Suspiria to be Released Nationally on November 8