The premiere of “Suspiria” at the Venice International Film Festival in September ended with conjectures – not so much about the movie as about the 82-year-old actor Lutz Ebersdorf, who had a major role but was a no-show for the festive occasion. Nor did he leave any traces on Google or IMBd, and at least to some viewers he looked less like an older man and more like a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton. For weeks, Swinton and the producers denied it, until the actor finally fessed up to The New York Times that it was indeed she. Even some of the cast and crew didn’t know that the only man with a key role is actually a woman, she said. The question of why she did it, like many questions that arise from viewing the picture, doesn’t get a sufficient answer and leaves the audience to cope on its own.
After garnering praises and prizes last year with the sensitive love story “Call Me By Your Name,” Luca Guadagnino moved from romance between men to horror among women. He chose to offer his own interpretation of “Suspiria,” the classic 1977 horror film by Dario Argento that became a cult movie. For the director, the transition from “Call Me By Your Name” isn’t all that sharp – once more it’s a very personal picture, he says.
He admires the original “Suspiria,” but not blindly. Guadagnino emphasized that the homage, if such it is, is for the “powerful emotion” that Argento’s film stirred in him. Which is to say that this is not a sequel and not a remake; it’s use of the original as raw material for a freer and broader adaptation by screenwriter David Kajganich and the director. Indeed, so free is the adaptation that the new version is an hour longer than the original.
This time, too, the year is 1977. But for Argento that was the non-reflexive present, whereas for Guadagnino it’s a historical period film. The new “Suspiria” is a period picture that references the Baader-Meinhof Group and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In general, there’s a clear aspiration to reconstruct the mood of the German Autumn and to adorn the film with it, like superficial decoration. In contrast to the original, which dealt with a ballet academy, Guadagnino goes for modern dance. The whole troupe has also been moved to tempestuous Berlin instead of Argento’s pastoral Freiburg.
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“Suspiria” begins like its predecessor, when a young American woman, Susie (Dakota Johnson), arrives in Germany to join a dance company, just as another dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) disappears mysteriously. Susie, who grew up in a religious home in Ohio and was inculcated with the principles of Mennonite pacifism, impresses the company’s artistic director, Madame Blanc (Swinton) and overnight becomes its star. It soon emerges that Blanc and all her colleagues are actually witches. The dancing provides an effective cover for the witchcraft and the rituals, and the dancers are a useful source for the perpetration of malicious deeds. At the same time, an elderly psychiatrist (also played by Swinton in male disguise) joins the renewed plot to help find out what happened to his patient, the missing Patricia.
It’s interesting to compare the two films, though for the most part this leads to a dead end. Guadagnino’s vision is completely different from Argento’s – the inspiration he draws from the 1977 work is associative and as such, vague. Argento focused on bold colors and blood to create the appropriate atmosphere for a coven of witches. Narrative took second place to atmosphere, and horror was secondary to gore. Apart from the frame story and the names of the characters, which are preserved only in part, Guadagnino totally deconstructs the previous version and takes only the elements that interest him, which are mere building blocks for a new structure. The screenwriter more or less justifies the extension of Argento’s film by a full hour by adding the character of the psychiatrist – whose wife was murdered by the Nazis – filling out Susie’s story, developing Patricia’s character and elaborating on the politics of the period.
The most significant change, in terms of spirit and color, is the transposition of the setting to Berlin against the background of the events of 1977. The director here makes it plain that Argento is only the starting point for an independent exposition. The glistening red of the dancers’ dorms in Argento’s film have been supplanted by a melancholy grayness, both inside and outside the dance company’s deteriorating building. The production designer, Inbal Weinberg (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is chiefly responsible for the atmospheric shift. It works well inside the disturbing building, where the rooms are pale and the eclectic collection of objects steeps the structure in history and is simultaneously metahistorical. Like the witches, it is both inside and outside time. When the story ventures outside into divided Berlin, the attempt to reflect 1977 perspires with effort, with every graffiti relevant and rife with significance, and the Berlin Wall seeming to loom at every street corner.
The principal thrust away from Argento’s path toward new territory occurs amid movement. Argento located his story in a ballet company, but rarely showed the young women actually dancing. Guadagnino, in contrast, saw the potential latent in the physicality that connects dance and black magic. A young body juxtaposed to ancient witchcraft. Action versus action. At the very beginning of the film, Susie dances for the Madame, while the editing reveals, appallingly, that her movements are part of a spell that was cast on another dancer, Olga, who is in a different room. Every movement by Susie impinges on Olga and shatters her organs. The dizzying transition between Susie and Olga, between creative work and human dismemberment, makes for a fascinating, impressive scene – but not for those with a weak stomach.
For Guadagnino, the dance troupe is more than useful background for a film that deals only with women: dance is at the very heart of his picture. The music, unexpectedly, is by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the choreographer is Damien Jalet, from Belgium. The scenes of greatest interest and tension take place on the stage or in practice, with the aggressive choreography serving well to create the growing anxiety and the music casting a sense of foul horror on a sea of tranquility. Despite the occupation with the female body, there is little noticeable sexuality. Even the body of the protagonist, Susie, is depicted more as a tool of work, and she herself is naive and immature.
Without the comic spirit that Argento cast on the witches, the new film tries to deepen the horror with the aid of a semblance of depth. Misogynist elements that are identified with the myth of the witch throughout history were organic to Argento’s film, but 41 years have gone by since then, and the effort to cope with this element is apparent.
The screenplay offers a fuller mythology than the original and is aware of the way in which accusations of witchcraft were an easy way to get rid of women. But in the house of the dance company there are only women, both good and bad. The only male character is the Jewish psychiatrist, played by a woman, and the only reason he’s there is to dismiss Patricia’s stories about witches as “hallucinations.” Guadagnino tries to connect this to the psychiatrist’s failure to grasp the Nazi threat in time, but this is done awkwardly, not to say cynically and exploitatively. The history of women and Jews is only one tool among all the others in Guadagnino’s hands. References to a long history of misogyny and anti-Semitism are scattered throughout like sprinkles on ice cream. Because it looks good.
Even more than its forerunner, the 2018 version of “Suspiria” creates a horrifying atmosphere, but very little horror. Fine scenes showing a precise integration of camera work, choreography and music generate disgust and recoil, and here and there are some scary moments. Viewers who go to the film out of nostalgia for the original are unlikely to find much of a connection between the works, and those who want to see a horror movie will emerge confused and worn out after two and a half hours.
Guadagnino scatters a few ideas and an abundance of shards of ideas, and forces the viewer to cope with the flow. Because he is out to generate unease more than fright, the collection of beautiful images – of which there are plenty – relating to the tension between dance and violence is intended to stir disquiet more than fear. That sense of foreboding, along with quite a few questions, will haunt viewers for some time after they leave the movie theater.