Creative Director - Los Angeles Arts Society
Please be advised that the following review contains spoilers.
When I heard that Suspiria was not only being remade but that it was to be directed by Luca Guadagnino, my gut reaction was tepid at best. I had seen the original by Dario Argento, and while I enjoyed it (enough to see it three times, for what it’s worth) I didn’t find myself enchanted by it the way many of my friends who had seen it were. As for Guadagnino, my knowledge of his work was limited to Call Me By Your Name, a movie that all the very serious people with all the correct opinions about everything told me I was supposed to adore but did not. Thus, it came as a welcome surprise that I found as much of value in Guadagnino’s take on the goofy giallo as I did.
The original Suspiria, as weird as it is, is a simple story about a girl who finds herself wrapped up in a coven of witches. Guadagnino’s Suspiria, on the other hand, is a sprawling story that touches on factional intrigue between said witches, psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer’s efforts to get to the bottom of his patient Patricia’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) disappearance, and newcomer Susie’s (Dakota Johnson) own mysterious role in all this. This makes it hard to determine what’s important and what’s not at first, but if you stay focused as time goes on it all gels together. The expanding on the film’s original set-up is also welcome, with the idea that dances are actually the vehicle through which the witches realize their dark arts justifying the story’s being set in a dance academy.
Another major improvement over the original is that the remake is actually unsettling. This is accomplished in large part by the effective use of camerawork, as seen in the scenes where the girls dance and people die. The attack on Olga (Elena Fokina) is especially brutal, with her being twisted horrifically out of shape as Susie, none the wiser, performs the incredibly difficult dance that cripples her. The cutting between the one and the other really captures the violence of the scene and reminds us just how much physicality goes into dancing. Then there is an extreme close-up that completely focuses on an instructor’s face, obscuring everything else in the shot. It’s an intrusive effect that is further amplified by the inexplicably creepy expression on her face.
The cast is good all around (the fact that the actors are actually speaking the lines coming out of their mouths does wonders for the film’s quality), but there is no doubt who the movie’s all about. Tilda Swinton commands attention throughout the film, bringing Mme. Blanc to life in a way that the original didn’t. She’s the main witch in charge, but she has qualms about how her sisters practice their craft and struggles to find a balance between their wicked ways and her desire to establish a kinder, gentler coven. Blanc also has to juggle her institutional responsibilities with her fondness for Susie, with Swinton really selling the character as a mother figure in a way that Joan Bennett never attempted to in the original.
The only other character who comes close to being as interesting is Dr. Klemperer, who is also played by Tilda Swinton! Through the judicious use of prosthetics, Swinton is transformed from her usual graceful self into the elderly psychoanalyst, a cosmetic feat that stands out all the more in an age of computer-generated effects. Wracked with guilt over pooh-poohing Patricia’s warnings about the witches as well as abandoning his wife during the war, Klemperer spends the movie trying to make amends and, as such, is the closest thing the story has to a morally sound character. As one of the few characters who is not a witch, this also makes him a suitable person for the audience to identify with.
Swinton also dons prosthetics to play Helena Markos, the ancient witch who wants the coven to become totally corrupt. Whereas both Blanc and Klemperer are fully rounded characters, Markos hews to a similar track as her depiction in the original film and gets little in the way of character development. We don’t even get to see much of Swinton in this role, but perhaps it’s for the best as the shock value of the Markos make-up (as grotesque as the Klemperer prosthetics are convincing) would almost certainly have worn-off if she spent more time on-screen in this role. Interestingly, Swinton’s portrayal of Markos along with her two other roles means that she forms a sort of moral spectrum. While Klemperer, with his regrets and resolve, is the high or humane end of it, the irredeemably evil Markos is the base, low end. This leaves Mme. Blanc as the center or neutral ground of said spectrum, a placement that reflects her conflicting obligations and morally gray approach to the affairs of the academy.
Just as it did in the 70’s-era Europe it's set in, the specter of left-wing terrorism looms over Suspiria. Indeed, the very first words spoken in the film are “Free Baader! Free Meinhof,” referring to the leaders of the radical Red Army Faction. Graffiti pledging allegiance to various Marxist groups and solidarity with the Palestinians adorns walls and buildings. Over the course of the movie, we are updated in bits and pieces as to the status of the infamous hijacking of the German airliner Lufthansa Flight 181, finally culminating in archival news footage that shows the aftermath of the authorities storming the plane and rescuing all the hostages.
What’s the significance of all this? Why does Guadagnino allocate so much time and space to these subversive happenings that have little bearing on the plot and were not so much as alluded to in Argento’s original? The answer, it would appear, is to draw parallels between the revolutionary violence of these extremists and the malefic violence of the witches. It’s a nebulous relationship that’s not developed nearly as much as it should have been, but it’s an intriguing one nevertheless that, if you look closely, you can see hints of throughout the film.
When the students go to sleep, the instructors and staff convene and bicker about the direction of their coven, perhaps mirroring the clandestine cells that members of the RAF and other far-left groups met in (to say nothing of the in-fighting that such organizations were notorious for.) Similarly, the decision to devote a whole scene to the liberation of Lufthansa 181 is bewildering if taken solely at face value. But, if taken as a hint at the comeuppance that awaits Markos and her loyalists, the sequence is then embedded with new narrative significance. On top of that, the identification of the plane hijackers with the antagonists tells us where they fall into the film’s moral universe and, thus, how we are to receive them and their politics.
Another clue that supports this reading of the film is the fact that the hooks the witches use on Olga and others resemble sickles. The sickle, of course, is one half of the international symbol of communism, representing solidarity and utopia to its adherents and misery and mass murder to most everyone else. When you look at it this way, it makes sense why Guadagnino (who, it should be noted, grew up as the leftist Red Brigades carried out similar acts of revolutionary terror across his native Italy) might have seen similarities between the scheming sorceresses of his movie and the scheming socialists of the real world.
In this context, it makes sense to compare Suspiria not to the original (or Argento’s other films, for that matter) but rather to Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. Set around the same time as the French miniseries, one gets a feel for the era from both productions even as they take different tacks towards it. Whereas Carlos finds much of interest and (arguably) beauty in its insurrection-minded protagonists (as seen in the way it lovingly bathes them in bright lights and a fuller color palette, to say nothing of its dangerously hip soundtrack) and their antics, Suspiria handles the background noise of its revolutionaries with the same drab lighting, dull colors, and melancholic music (composed and produced by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, of all people) that it accords most everything else. The resulting impression is one of jaded realism, underlining the futility of the terrorists’ actions and highlighting the gulf between the high-minded goals and rhetoric they espoused and the bloodshed and havoc they wrought in both the movie and reality.
It doesn’t flesh out its themes and villains as fully as it could have, but even so the movie is able to say a bit of import. As dilettantish social commentary and radical chic seep their way into today’s movies, Guadagnino offers an admirably measured approach to his story and its political subtext. More ambitious and more astute than the production that inspired it, the remake also proves to be more disturbing thanks to its inventive expansion of Argento’s original ideas and set-up. True, many may prefer the camp aesthetics of the original, but Guadagnino’s Suspiria achieves so much more through its efforts to make viewers think as much as it makes them feel.
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