By Ryan Keating-Lambert
The new Suspiria is more of a rebirth than a remake. A spellbinding ambitious art film that cleverly, albeit brutally, assaults the senses with its nightmarish imagery and explores unrelenting violence. The violence that occurs through abuses of power, both with politics and with women. It feels as timely today as it would have been confined within the wall of 1970s’ Berlin, which is where this very feminist horror epic takes place.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), Suspiria sees Susie (Dakota Johnson), a dancer and Mennonite from country Ohio, accepted into the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Company in Berlin. It’s shortly after that we learn of the witch’s coven operating within the school, led by the bewitching Madame Blanc and Mother Markos.
Guadagnino brings a well-crafted ‘cover’ of the Dario Argento cult classic to the table here, and after seeing the film and hearing the director speak so passionately about the original, I doubt that anyone else could have pulled this off as well as he has. The director was so obsessed with the original that he even tracked Argento down as a teenager to proclaim his love of the film.
Argento’s version was overly saturated in technicolor, effortlessly building on and morphing the Italian Giallo exploitation genre. The film is even more popular today than upon its release, influencing countless directors and their work. It was a visual masterpiece that prided itself on gore and glow, but there’s no doubt that it was somewhat lacking in the plot department.
Guadagnino’s version however, couldn’t be farther from. Set in 1977, when the original film was released, this Suspiria takes place in the brutalist labyrinth of Cold War era Berlin. With an all grey colour palette, the set is awash with the disheartened soul of a city torn to pieces from years of prior conflict, and that conflict along with the imbalance of power during that time, portrayed in the film by the real-life terror attacks of the Baader Meinhoff group, is also brilliantly reflected in the teachers of the Markos Dance Company.
Swinton, as usual, steals the show as Blanc. She’s incredibly strict and intense, but still a surprisingly empathetic artistic director and dance teacher who floats from scene to scene with such poise and grace. There’s a certain ‘Pina Bausch-ness’ to her appearance as well. Fans of the actress, and there are a lot of them, are really going to love this film.
Blanc’s relationship with Susie makes for a riveting watch. Under her careful guidance, Blanc draws out Susie’s hidden ‘talents’ and weaponises her through dance. That ‘jumping’ scene really is a wonderful standout, and probably a not so subtle metaphor for how high Guadagnino had to ‘jump’ in order to achieve this ambitious work of cinema.
The director, along with screenwriter David Kajganich also show no mercy in portraying the cruelty that women are capable of inflicting on each other, especially through their bodies… Yes, I’m talking about THAT scene. You’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll probably never forget it. This film certainly doesn’t shy away from back-breaking violence.
Unlike the original, there really is a lot more dance in this one. Johnson was already training with professional ballerina Mary Helen Bowers, who also trained Natalie Portman for Black Swan, well before production began. Blanc’s reoccuring ‘Volk’ sequence is a primitive and witchy number that only gets better with Thom Yorke’s superb score which is more than likely going to be my number one soundtrack from last year.
As Berlin begins to darken outside, so do the happenings within the dance company. The teachers, who resemble all of those old lady teachers you were terrified of as a kid, are in dispute over who should lead the coven into the future. Should it be Madame Blanc or the haggard Mother Markos (also Swinton) hidden in the bowels of the school, feeding off the life force of failed dancers. Caught up in the mess is Mia Goth’s Sarah, friend to Susie and probably one of the nicest characters in the film, and Chloe Grace-Moretz’s Patricia, who mysteriously disappears in the first act.
Speaking of acts, this film has 6. It’s a hefty runtime of 2 hours and 40 minutes, but is so multi-layered that you will (hopefully) want to watch it again and again. One of these layers being the journey of psychoanalyst Dr Josef Klemperer (yes, Swinton again). Klemperer, being one of the only men in the film, brings that abuse and imbalance of power to the story again through his Holocaust survivor tale.
Just when you think things can’t get anymore savage, we hit the explosive finale. A fantastic sequence with about as much blood as that ‘Crazy 88’ scene in Kill Bill. It’s a fascinating and surprising conclusion, and Thom Yorke track ‘Suspirium’ is the icing on the cake.
The film will certainly leave you wanting more, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to this story. There is already talk of exploring Madame Blanc’s origin story along with possible sequels. After all, Argento’s Suspiria was part of his ‘Three Mothers Trilogy’ including follow-up films Inferno and The Mother of Tears. The films focused on the director’s infamous pre-Christian, pre-God witches, Mother Tenenbraum (darkness), Mother Lachrymarum (tears) and Mother Suspiriorum (sighs).
Suspiria is a fantastic trip that dazzles, confuses and horrifies. It’s by far the best remake I have seen in a long time and probably one of the best films I saw last year. Dakota Johnson couldn’t be further away from her Fifty Shades character now. She even needed therapy after the film. There’s also a post-credits scene so stick around for that.
The film is now available for digital download in the Czech Republic through Amazon, iTunes and other providers.