Patrick Preziosi on Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria‘ (2018)
Enjoyment of Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria, a remake of Giallo horror icon Dario Argento’s beloved 1977 film, requires a healthy distancing from the original’s satisfyingly nonsensical shlock, as this remake boasts a newfound, though misguided, density. Guadagnino himself has shied away from the claim of his Suspiria being simply a “remake”, opting instead for something along the lines of tribute, a homage to the lasting effects Argento’s film had on the director at age 14. This, as opposed to an explicit retelling of American Suzy Bannion and the dangerous happenings she finds herself privy to after gaining acceptance to a prestigious German dance academy, whose administration holds mysterious, and potentially sinister, secrets.
Guadagnino decidedly cherrypicks from Argento’s Suspiria, overextending the original’s concision with overwhelming expanse and bloat. The supernatural is stretched through the political unrest of 1977 Germany, as well as over two hours, and in effect, no narrative or symbolic stone is left unturned. Guadagnino is doing much more than just flipping his source’s signature feverish technicolor in favour of a drably washed out colour palette; he’s attempting to turn such garish shlock into both a political and emotional vessel, placing as much stock in trauma marred backstory as the events at hand. The amount of screen-time devoted to the likes of a Mennonite upbringing in rural Ohio, loved ones lost in the Holocaust, the RAF and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 dwarf moments purely dedicated to evoking fear.
However, the linear delineation of events does somewhat follow the blueprint of the original, with Susie (the -zy changed) Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arriving at the austere, marble-hewn Markos Dance Academy just as another student, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), has disappeared. Susie befriends Sarah (a wonderful Mia Goth), another student who grows suspicious of students’ disappearances and tries her best to get in the good graces of the school’s choreographer, the icily maternal Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who inhabits other roles elsewhere in the film), all the while more and more mysterious violence and misery are exacted upon the unwitting.
But breaking up all of this is an inexplicable glut of subplots, tangents, flashbacks and dream sequences, in effect making the film an inspired face-plant at best, as these more metaphorical passages crash into one other rather than cohere neatly. Though Guadagnino tries to do right by Argento’s original direction, his confessed blend of high and lowbrow influences are more exciting in theory than in actual execution; Rainer Werner Fassbinder never directed an unabashed horror film, despite a body of genre films, and Guadagnino doesn’t bring that any closer to fruition, despite his confessed Argento-via-Fassbinder aspirations.
However, the liberated cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, when paired with Walter Fasano’s staccato editing, does add a welcome melodramatic flair, the camera playing both the part of observer and unwilling participant. Guadagnino favors lingering on the macabre, before quickly cutting away, especially in a much talked about scene in which a student named Olga grows disillusioned with the academy and tries to leave what she refers to as a, “box of rabies”. Escape is impossible though, and Olga finds herself trapped in a mirror lined studio, her movements inexplicably linked to Susie’s, who in a different studio, is delivering an aggressive performance for Madam Blanc. While Susie excels, Olga’s thrown like a rag-doll across the room, her bones cracking and splintering, different bodily fluids spilling from various orifices, as her body contorts further beyond thought possible. Guadagnino gleefully works with these moments of contrast, the beauty of the dancers and their craft offset by what look like Cronenberg practical effects rendered digitally.
While Guadagnino is undeniably responsible for some truly scary moments (a sustained high point around the film’s middle in which Goth makes a less than pleasant discovery about the disappeared students), his heavy-handedness goes much beyond typical camp. The Markos Dance Academy sits directly across from the Berlin Wall, of all places. The dream sequences feel like last ditch efforts to up the scare factor, but they come off as mere retreads of the fractured editing style of Don’t Look Now (1973). The film is separated clunkily into six acts and an epilogue, a formal structuring that continues the film’s airless flailing. And for the consistent use of expository sequences, from dissent among the hierarchical system of the academy, to Susie’s relationship with her Mennonite mother, Guadagnino forgoes all narrative fulfillment for a climax which favours a ritualistic bloodbath over anything else, none of the film’s more tangential subplots coming full circle.
Guadagnino unfortunately can’t even seem to draw together the film’s more commendable aspects. Thom Yorke’s elegiac score can feel at odds with the film itself, not always augmenting what is playing out on screen. Both the minor dancers and villains are given more breathing room than the original, allowing for singular moments of casual and believable conversation, but these moments are only fleeting. And then there’s Swinton’s masterful Madam Blanc, whose maternal instincts come off both loving and animalistic, as if she were a mother about to consume her young. But then under a mess of prosthetics, Swinton also plays elderly therapist Josef Klemperer, who finds himself folded into the film’s sadism after investigating the disappearance of Patricia, one of his patients, but does little more than act as the blatant personification for the film’s overly-ambitious approach to German history.
Any commentary Guadagnino tries to hammer in, on any thematic level of Suspiria, is nothing more than a stumble through suffocating, allegorical perfectionism, Swinton’s multiple roles included. Argento’s Suspiria is rife with narrative blind spots, but even when maggots fall from the ceiling, and a girl falls into a room full of barbed wire, everything is still working towards a greater whole, a whole whose every aspect Guadagnino tries to prescribe clumsy meaning to. So when the time-hopping epilogue comes around, a half-hearted affirmation of perseverance through historical/familial/supernatural trauma, it becomes all the more obvious that a pat on the back for Guadagnino as director is simply a slog for us.
Suspiria is showing in UK cinemas from 16th November 2019.