Opening Friday, Nov. 2
One wants to give Luca Guadagnino’s much-anticipated remake of Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria an A for effort. It’s gorgeously shot, with a few moments that rival the original in both cinematic artistry and bone-crunching depravity. It might be the most ambitious horror movie ever made, taking the occult-thriller framework of the original and piling on a simultaneously over- and under-wrought historical allegory with references to religious schism, Holocaust guilt, and the radical German left. But none of these subjects are pursued deeply enough to mean much, and the confused exhaustion that sets in well before the third act drains the impressive craft of its vitality.
Ironically, excessive ambition is one of Suspiria’s many themes. Set among an elite Berlin dance troupe in the late 1970s, it follows Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an expat from rural Ohio determined to escape her past. Her talent stuns the leaders of the dance company, a coven of witches who begin secretly grooming her for a ritual sacrifice. Through oblique flashbacks, Guadagnino hints at a tantalizing parallel—one that may be more than metaphorical—between Suzy’s Mennonite mother and sisters and the cosmopolitan dance company, two all-female social groups with authoritarian hierarchies and dark secrets. Yet we never learn anything substantial about how this shapes the characters’ motives, even after a plot twist that surprises more as a result of missing information than skillful misdirection.
Suzy’s backstory is one of many changes Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich made to Argento’s original. Their overhaul initially seems like a promising attempt to lend their version a sense of purpose beyond the usual, cynical studio cash-grab, yet it succumbs to the same narrative inertia. Taking place in 1977, the year of the original film’s release, the remake detours into the “German Autumn,” a period of widespread left-wing guerrilla violence in Germany. This is provocative but never feels more than tangential.
It’s fine that Patricia (Chlöe Grace Moretz), who fled the dance company to join the Marxist-Leninist Baader-Meinhof Gang, is reduced to a spooky bit of foreshadowing, ancillary to the plot. But then, why is the film so preoccupied with news footage and radio clips detailing the events of that time? The other Big Historical Theme comes via elderly psychoanalyst Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in prosthetics), who first learns of the witches from listening to Patricia’s “delusions.” A widower haunted by his complicity with the Nazis, Klemperer comes to serve as the movie’s emotional core. But as a witness to events that are largely concealed from him yet revealed to us, he has as little bearing on their direction as do all the extra layers of historical context—basically nil. It’s as if a lost Fassbinder movie had been jerry-rigged to a remake of Suspiria.
That the scenes set inside the dance school almost transcend the script’s weaknesses reflects Guadagnino’s commitment to fashioning a unique, immersive, at times overwhelming sensory experience. The sequence in which Suzy’s supernaturally assisted dancing folds another dancer up like a human pretzel is already infamous. Argento’s Suspiria is often praised for the way its set pieces evoke the school’s dreamlike, Escher-esque architecture, as if the parade of doomed young women were eviscerated by design angles rather than human agents.
Unsurprising for the director of Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino elicits similar effects from the materiality of his characters’ bodies. In some of the best dance scenes ever in a studio film, we are made to see, hear, and even feel the thud of feet hitting the floor, the strain of muscles pulling bone into place.
The true heart of the film is the quasi-maternal psychic duel between Suzy and her dance teacher, Madame Blanc (also Swinton). Alternating physical training and supernatural murder, their scenes together capture the simultaneously erotic and dehumanizing power of subjecting flesh to aesthetic form. If this Suspiria had grounded itself in its female characters and the ways women’s bodies are turned against them, instead of trying to address the conscience of Germany, it could have been not only much more cohesive, but a far worthier response to Argento.