Luca Guadagnino’s career so far has been full of the same kind of sensual, dreamy, sweeping, romantic films. His debut, I Am Love, with his frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton got some attention, but it wasn’t until last year’s breakthrough Call Me By Your Name, where Guadagnino became a name to pay attention to. His follow-up project, a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, Suspiria, is a departure for him, to say the least. How does his very specific skill set impact a genre that couldn’t be farther away from his comfort zone?
In 1977 Berlin, fresh-off-the-bus Midwestern Susie (Dakota Johnson) is an innocent, all American girl from a Mennonite family. She arrives in Berlin with the desire to study dance at a prestigious dance academy run by Madame Blanc (Swinton, who may be playing more than one role). Susie learns that this academy is hiding an incredibly powerful coven of witches, and Blanc might be the most threatening of them all.
Having the film set in 1977, the year the original Suspiria came out, is an interesting choice. At this point in time, Germany is still very much feeling the after-effects of WWII and is recovering from Nazism, and the Berlin wall is still up. And therein lies the one central thing this movie does wrong. The political subtext that is sprinkled throughout this narrative (absent in the original) never fully resonates and just feels a bit unnecessary. There’s all of this stuff going on in the outside world, sure, but the coven of dance academy witches is more than enough. The political stuff feels like it’s from a different movie. If less time was spent on this B-story, I think it would have been less aggravating. Especially since everything else here is pretty pitch perfect.
Guadagnino has crafted a film that is equal parts gorgeous and sickening to watch. It’s also over two and a half hours long and yet somehow feels overstuffed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. While Call Me By Your Name is so lush and so evocative of this dreamy tone and imagery, Suspiria feels menacing and bleak and ominous. In one of the first scenes where Susie dances in front of the company, her movements have an effect on someone else, and the camerawork in this scene, in particular, is stunning and creepy as hell. The music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is absolutely perfect and adds so much to the eerie atmosphere, and it needs to, because this movie is all about atmosphere. It’s also masterfully shot and edited. It’s at once mesmerizing and dreamlike and then snaps you into a world of devastating horror.
Dakota Johnson is slowly becoming an actress I admire very much. She got a bad rap after the Fifty Shades movies, but since then, has consistently chosen strange projects with interesting directors. Susie is innocent and wide-eyed in the beginning, and as she begins to understand what’s going on, we realize there may have always been more to her than we initially realized. Johnson absolutely holds her own against the virtuoso Tilda Swinton, who is giving a career-best performance. Guadagnino’s characters in his previous films have always been easy to emotionally connect to, and there’s no real human being here to relate to, but that’s hardly a problem. The deeper we dive into these characters and their motivations, the more thrilling this movie becomes.
Suspiria is absolutely terrific but is not for everyone. While I found it thrilling, I’m sure you might think it’s a bore. Regardless of what you think of this polarizing film, we all walk out of this film jaw-dropped and utterly disoriented by what we just saw, and that’s the whole point.