The term “arthouse film” was invented for the likes of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.”
A remake of Dario Argento‘s 1977 classic of the same name, Guadagnino keeps his updated version firmly planted in the same time period, but moving the location from Freiburg to Berlin.
The most reductive description possible is to say this is a film about witches running a ballet school. Although that seems to be a common refrain of some writers. To call it such is to dismiss a wealth of insight, depth, and detail, all of which make the new “Suspiria” an intriguing thrill.
It opens on Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a haunted young woman who maniacally tries to tell her psychiatrist about the horrors at the Markos Dance Academy. The good Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton as Lutz Ebersdorf), listens patiently while Patricia flails about the room, seeming almost out of control of herself. Is she having a psychotic breakdown? Is a demon possessing her? Or is she just under a lot of stress? When she suddenly disappears out the door, she leaves behind several notebooks filled with scribblings about the Three Mothers and other strange, disconnected thoughts.
This encounter sets Dr. Klemperer on a path as he tries to figure out a way to help Patricia and to uncover the truth of what is really happening at the school. It is an intriguing introduction to the film and a cursory introduction to the academy. But Moretz’s antics are so over the top that it ventures just a bit too far into campy.
But then the scene changes and “Suspiria” settles into itself. In the pouring rain, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) walks through the doors of the same dance academy. She is there to audition but has arrived on an inconvenient day. Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler) tries to arrange another time but ultimately agrees to let Susie dance. In a mirrored room, the girl from Ohio begins an emotional, almost violent combination of moves. She draws the unexpected attention of Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton) who was summoned by some unseen force. Susie is immediately admitted into the academy, despite her lack of formal training or experience.
As Susie settles into life at the academy, she gets to know some of the other girls, including Olga (Elena Fokina) and Sara (Mia Goth). Several of the girls are upset about Patricia’s sudden departure. The school’s leaders explained away her absence by claiming Patricia ran off with the Red Army Faction. Terrorism is rampant in that part of Europe, a fact punctuated by the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight. When Olga argues with Madame Blanc during a rehearsal, the argument leads to one of the most disturbing scenes of any film this year. It is the level of grotesque that makes you desperately want to look away, but eager to continue watching.
Tilda Swinton plays two very different roles in Dr. Klemperer and Madame Blanc. There is no plot-driven need for her to portray both characters. The Academy Award winner just wanted to do it. She is good as Klemperer, although the prosthetics and makeup are so obvious that they are sometimes distracting. It is a quiet, pensive character, ever confronting the demons of his past. His thoughts never stray far from his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper, who originated the role of Susie Bannion), from whom he was separated while fleeing Nazis 30 years before.
Swinton’s other role, as Madame Blanc, is also quiet and pensive. But there is far more brewing beneath the surface. Unlike with Klemperer, we don’t have the help of memories and visible regrets. She keeps her past and her secrets hidden deep, adding to the air of mystery that always surrounds the renowned mistress. She shifts from warm to cruel and back with such frightening suddenness that one never knows fully whether to trust her or not.
Dakota Johnson also provides a quiet role in surroundings that can sometimes get very loud. Susie walked away from her Mennonite life in Ohio, leaving behind her dying mother and a home life that seems as terrifying as a ballet school full of witches. Johnson has grown as an actress, thriving in parts that don’t involve shades of grey. She also learned ballet and did her own dancing, and the film is all the richer for it.
At 151 minutes, “Suspiria” is a commitment. But Luca Guadagnino is the kind of director who knows how to use the time he takes. He reunites with Walter Fasano, editor of his earlier films, “A Bigger Splash” and “Call Me By Your Name.” Together they know how to pace this work so that the horror and drama and mystery all compliment each other. No piece overshadows the rest. “A Bigger Splash” writer David Kajganich also helps blend these elements well. The actresses get plenty of opportunities to splash tension all over the screen with both spoken and unspoken brilliance.
“Suspiria” is also a masterful exploration of the feminism of the 1970s. Women discuss financial autonomy, desires, and dreams. There are only three male characters (and only two male actors), each emasculated in different ways. Women are villains, victims, and heroes. This is truly a story that celebrates the complicated fascination of women. One can’t help but wonder how this might have turned out with a woman directing. And yet, Guadagnino feels like the right choice too.
The year, the city and even the Markos Dance Academy itself all serve as supporting players to a film that, much like the music to which they dance, crescendos to a cymbal crash of chaos and fright. When things are still moving slowly, the whispers, the nightmares, all of it adds to a growing sense of dread. It is an unsettling and strange experience, the kind of horror that clings to its victims like creeping vines. Many filmmakers only wish to make such an effective film in the genre.
“Suspiria” is distributed by Amazon Studios and opens nationwide on November 2.