Suspiria ★★½

Between the feverish anticipation for Bradley Cooper‘s A Star is Born and Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria, the 75th Venice Film Festival has been the stomping ground for star-studded remakes. After the success of last year’s Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino returns to his home country’s famous film festival with a remake of Dario Argento‘s seminal 1977 horror film of the same name; the similarity between the films, however, hardly extends beyond their shared title.

SuspiriaSet in 1977, the film follows American dancing talent Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) as she joins the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin. Under the tutelage of her idol, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Bannion finds herself at the centre of an ancient supernatural that threatens to consume her. Suspiria clearly intends to shock, and shares incredible similarities with this year’s horror hit, Hereditary; both films have a fixation with nudity intended to horrify at their climaxes, and both provoke the audience to contemplate the films’ endings long after the credits have finished rolling.

The distinctive sound of Italian rock band Goblin permeated the original film and is still easily recognisable forty-one years later. Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke provides the eerie modern soundtrack that is more akin to a standard horror film. Yorke’s soundtrack undeniably adds to the overall feel of the film, and is a mature and eloquent successor to Goblin’s campy original.  

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two Suspiria films are the visuals. Contrasting the neon, candy-coloured tones favoured by Argento, Guadagnino and director of photography, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, opt for a subdued palette. This works as a bleak foundation allowing the exuberant choreography to visually shine on screen. Guadagnino has referenced Michael Ballhaus and Xaver Schwarzenberger‘s work with Reiner Werner Fassbinder‘s as a direct influence on his interpretation, and this translates well on screen. Choreographer Damien Jalet excels himself in bringing Guadagnino’s vision to life. The central routine of the film – Madame Blanc’s ‘Volk’ – might as well have a spot in the credits. Volk is an animalistic creature of brutality, created by witchcraft and fueled by the rawness of human emotion; woe betide those who feel her wrath. It is fascinating that Guadagnino diverges from Argento’s original by focusing on the dance. In doing so, he creates a film of visual art that is both somewhat abstract and direct; much can be implied through dance alone.

There is a danger to this, however. If not perfected, a visually stunning spectacle can lose an audience through wavering attention because of a lack of action. This Suspiria is split into six subsequent, individually-titled acts; the film itself is subtitled as Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin. The ambitious titling is an apt representation of one of its biggest pitfalls: it tries too hard and does too much, yet actually achieves very little. At over an hour longer than the original, it truly does not warrant such an elongated run-time. Whilst the references to the Lufthansa hijacking and the Baader-Meinhof group are clever when correlated to the coven, the film is over-stuffed. One would think that the sub-plots, driven more by dialogue, would drive the pacing; instead they detract enough that boredom sets in.

A particular scene was screened at the 2018 CinemaCon luncheon to much buzz, and it is now clear why it was chosen. The scene in question follows the Russian dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) as she attempts to leave, distraught at Madame Blanc’s response to the earlier disappearance of the previous lead dancer, Patricia (Chlöe Grace Moretz). Olga is blinded by an onset of tears and is subconsciously led to a dance studio covered in mirrors. Beautifully cut, the camera alternates between protagonist Susie Bannion sensually dancing the Volk, while Olga’s body twists and deforms in time; her autonomy lost as she is flung repeatedly into the mirrored-walls by an unseen force. With every bone crack and every moan of pain, the audience reaction at the Festival’s world premiere was one of abject disgust. This scene is the pinnacle of Guadagnino’s modern vision (and the epitome of modern make-up effects), but it is also a perfect example of the film’s failure to capture its audience – one scene of gruesome body horror does not constitute a strong foundation for creating or maintaining the prolonged tension it should hold. This version of Suspiria never creates true tensions. One could be misled as to what the tone of the film is if this scene is shown out of context such as at CinemaCon. Instead of showcasing what Suspiria has to offer, this early screener was merely a presentation of the film’s best efforts with a scene which seemingly places Suspiria as a pretentious and hollow installment in the Saw franchise.

The cast, however, are at their very best. Dakota Johnson awes as she completes intricate choreography. Her ragged breathing throughout Volk appears to be indicative of her concerted dedication to her performance, but instead reeks of a heavy-handed, clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s climax. However, this is more due to Guadagnino’s creative decision rather than a slight against Johnson’s acting ability. Suspiria is Johnson’s best performance yet.

Guadagnino’s Madame Blanc is Tilda Swinton, in her third outing with the director. Swinton is undeniably one of the best performers of her generation; her ability to embody such wildly different characters is uncontestable. In Suspiria, Swinton plays the mysterious mentor to Johnson’s Bannion. She cuts an austere figure of intrigue: the dark straight hair and plain black dress against Swinton’s pale complexion is the human embodiment of Guadagnino’s colour pallette. Swinton instantly draws the eye in every scene with her powerful onscreen presence. Actor Lutz Ebersdorf‘s Dr. Josef Klemperer (who may very well be Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) is world’s away from the severity of the mysterious Madame Blanc; he is one of the film’s more grounded, logical characters. Unfortunately, Ebsersdorf finds himself at the centre of one of the film’s superfluous sub-plots, however the ‘newcomer’ gives a tremendous performance that is perhaps on par with Swinton’s.

Merits aside, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is disappointing to watch. Suspiria had the potential to be heralded as a modern classic, but it ultimately disappoints on execution: it is a film that relies on body horror to fleetingly shock and lacks much substance despite its elongated runtime. At the end of it all, ‘suspiria’ means ‘sighs’ in Latin, and that is exactly the reaction you might have in seeing the film, wondering just how much longer until the screen finally cuts to black.

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