Fans of Call Me By Your Name beware — Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to last year’s adored tale of tender romance swaps the heat of rural Italy for Cold War Berlin, and young lovers for ancient witches. There are no peaches in Suspiria, but bones crack, flesh rots and a shit-tonne of heads explode.
Which is not to say that that Suspiria is a horror film exactly. It might share a name with Dario Argento’s 1977 film, but the resemblance is faint. Genre seems to be the last of Guadagnino’s concerns, and the film’s moments of horror punctuate what is more often a slow-burn exercise in atmosphere. Still, the plot retains only the skeleton of the original. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Germany and is admitted to the Markos Dance Academy, where she is instructed by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Unbeknownst to the students, the academy is being run by a coven of witches.
A parallel plot — a major departure from the original — centres on the efforts of Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Swinton again, under some marvellous prosthetics) to locate his patient Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Markos Academy dancer who has mysteriously vanished. The original’s setting has also been relocated, from Freiberg to West Berlin in 1977 — the dance school overlooks the Wall, and news items about the city’s fraught political situation are threaded throughout the film.
Suspiria v.2 tones down the visual and narrative excesses of Argento’s film, which featured a gleefully grizzly scene in which a character inexplicably falls into a room filled with barbed wire. Instead, we get an insight into the dancers’ performance preparation, a fleshed-out history of the witches, flashbacks to Susie’s own problematic family relations, and a whole load of subtext concerning divided Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust.
Resultantly — inevitably, perhaps — Suspiria lacks coherence. This is a film with a lot of thoughts but very few ideas. Its political undertones are obscure, sometimes bordering on tasteless. The fact is, Guadagnino seems to be far more interested in making a mythology than a movie. It leaves its mystery to over-brew during its thinky downtime, and at points I caught myself aching for a cameo from the barbed wire room.
And yet, in its own way, Suspiria is too beguilingly strange to dismiss. There’s the commendably audacious editing, the disquieting dance scenes and the visceral body horror. And then there’s Tilda Swinton, who endows the film with a genuine sense of pathos the original could never dream of achieving. With much of the last decade’s cinemascape dominated by fawning, underwhelming horror remakes, we should be thankful that Suspiria dares to try something radically original.
Image: MTV International via Wikimedia Commons.