Review: Suspiria (2018)


Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a literalization of something that cannot be made literal. It transforms an appealing horror scenario about a young woman’s fantasy becoming nightmare into an inquiry into everything from political instability and terrorism in East and West Berlin to #MeToo, and ultimately comes to the conclusion, as so much modern art does, that nothing is more horrific than the real, and nothing is more important than the political. For this film, even a bloodthirsty coven of witches pales in comparison to the moral corruption of people in light of the Holocaust, which is mostly true, but kind of misses the whole point of horror, which is that there are uncanny elements of human nature and the world around us that cannot be explained away, that cannot be reckoned with, and most certainly cannot be reduced into literal expressions of our own pathologies. Thus, by complicating an elegantly simple horror scenario and making it more “profound,” “more meaningful,” Guadagnino has performed one of the year’s most egregious acts of artistry and transformed a visually-spectacular bloodfest into a muddle of half-baked social inquiry and laughable artistic expression.

Has the man even seen a horror movie before? In the film’s attempts to “elevate” the horror genre, it seems that he hasn’t, or that, if he has, he hates the debasing, emotional drive of horror. Why else would he avoid any attempt to make the film scary in favour of examining the various political expressions that fuel its characters’ psychologies?

This version of Suspiria runs two hours and 32 minutes, while the original film runs one hour and 38 minutes. It is filmed in a muddy, desaturated manner, robbing us of the reveling of technicolour spectacles that was the original film’s greatest strengths. The plot follows a young dancer (Dakota Johnson) who moves to Berlin in 1977 and joins a dance academy, which she discovers is run by witches. In the original, Argento uses the conceit as a way of updating a fairy tale about a young woman entering a seemingly-romantic world that’s actually full of lurking danger and certain doom. In this version, elegance is jettisoned in favour of a tangled mess of a narrative that involves everything from Baader-Meinhof terrorists to the Palestinian hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, Holocaust guilt, war guilt, the misogyny of psychotherapy, feminism, the repression of the Amish, religious mania, and, of course, witchcraft. It tries to become about everything and ends up being about nothing.

It isn’t poorly made in a technical sense. As was recently demonstrated in Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino is a talented filmmaker with an eye for lush visuals and interesting camera movements. He can get good performances out of actors, and none of the actors here are particularly bad, aside from Tilda Swinton in old man makeup (which we’ll get to in a moment). Mia Goth is particularly good as one of the dancers, Sara, and Dakota Johnson is sturdy in the lead, even if the role is drastically underwritten (which is the case in the original, too, but there, it’s beside the point since the film isn’t going for psychological realism). This version of Suspiria is edited with the conviction of a whirlwind and Thom Yorke’s score is atmospheric and haunting. But every calculation made in the making of this film seems to have been the wrong one.

The film hinges around several dance scenes that really depend on your tolerance for modern dance; if you’re a fan, you might get a kick out of the spastic, muscular movements on display. But I can’t stomach the kind of dance that removes beauty from the art. At one point Tilda Swinton’s head witch, Madame Blanc, says that dance should no longer have anything to do with beauty; dance has to be about important things instead of frivolous aesthetics, as if one can escape aesthetics even if one wants to.... This is a similar refrain to what you hear from people who complain about how it’s impossible to take art seriously in the modern day unless it’s about Trump, or #MeToo, or whatever political movement is dominating the headlines—that is, unless the art explicitly becomes about those politics. I suspect that Guadagnino partially agrees; surely a horror film is a frivolous concept in these politically frayed times, so why even try to scare folks with silly monsters when the monster of reality is so much obviously scarier? As you can suss out from my tone, I’m not convinced by this approach to art at all. It’s all too literal and, ultimately, too boring.

Now let’s get back to Tilda Swinton in old man makeup. Although the character of Dr. Josef Klemperer is credited as being played by “Lutz Ebersdorf,” it’s obviously Tilda Swinton. She does little to disguise her voice aside from putting on a German accent, and the makeup, while impressive, cannot make Swinton disappear in the role. I wouldn’t be so bothered by this gimmick if the film weren’t so obsessed with the muddy literalism of “reality.” Why go to all this trouble to present a grounded 1977 Berlin only to spend much of the film with what is obviously a woman in silly makeup pretending to be an old man?

Furthermore, the film makes several loud declarations about misogyny and the need for men to believe women—a character literally tells Dr. Klemperer that he needs to “believe women” in the film, as if Guadagnino, writer David Kajganich, and company couldn’t bother to disguise the naked politics of the comment at all—but the man who represents the patriarchy and oppression of women is simply a woman in a costume. The choice defangs this entire line of approach; even if I disagree with this approach, at least follow it through with conviction. Such pedantry and moralism ends up being counter to the very progressive statement the film wants to make.

One last thought: in the final moments of the film, during the epilogue, two key characters have a discussion about the Holocaust and World War II and guilt and shame regarding actions or inactions during those years. Guadagnino then cuts to the present day, where vibrant colours finally fill the frame and a seemingly-happy family enjoys an afternoon at the country house where Dr. Klemperer used to live with his wife, Anke. He zooms in on the heart carved into the side of the house, which has the initials “A + J” inside it. It’s literally meant to be “Anke and Josef,” but coming after such a frank discussion of the Holocaust, it’s surely also meant to stand for “Aryans + Jews.”

Such thudding literalism is obviously meant to be profound and even poignant, but in a horror film about witches making people’s heads explode, I find such moralism profoundly misguided, and oh so boring.

2 out of 10

Suspiria (2018, United States/Italy)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino; written by David Kajganich, based on the screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi; starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Christine LeBoutte, Fabrizia Sacchi, Malgosia Bela, Jessica Harper, Chlöe Grace Moretz.