Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Grace Moretz, “Lutz Ebersdorf,” Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Jessica Harper
Dario Argento’s 1977 cult-classic Suspiria was a movie I admired but didn’t really like too much. While it was directed with energy and filled with memorable and phantasmagoric visuals, the storyline (to me) amounted to less than nothing. Of course, the “story” may have only been an excuse for the primary purpose of the movie, which were the visuals and creepy imagery. I do respect that, but I’ve seen the movie twice now, and both times it left me feeling cold.
Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake tries to bring more story to the material and pads the runtime out to an unconscionable two and a half hours. It’s clear that he wanted to make a serious art movie with a capital “A” here, and to be fair, he did keep me engaged for about an hour or so. But there comes a point where the disorganized screenplay by David Kajganich proves unable to support the movie’s arthouse ambitions, and the film’s climax is....well, it’s certainly something. We’ll get to that momentarily.
The movie begins in 1977-set Berlin, where a very troubled young woman named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) visits her elderly doctor Josef Klemperer (the credits identify the actor as Lutz Ebersdorf, although I honestly had no idea who that really was until after I finished the movie) with claims that the dance school she attends, the Markos Dance Academy, is really a front for a coven of witches. The good doctor writes off the young woman’s stories as delusions, but Patricia soon disappears shortly after leaving his office.
Then, we’re introduced to Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an American from a strict Mennonite family in Ohio. She’s come to Berlin to attend the Markos Dance Academy, yet because she has no prior training, the teachers there are reluctant to accept her. She wows everyone with her fierce audition dance, including the strict Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who makes her the star of the upcoming ballet entitled Volk on only Suzy’s second day. Suzy befriends a lively fellow dancer named Sara (Mia Goth), who was Patricia’s friend and becomes suspicious about the school after she’s visited by Josef.
There is enough story here to sustain the viewer’s interest, but the film adds in two extra subplots that ultimately do little but detract from the film’s main narrative. The first involves an actual historical event, the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. The movie makes mention of this event so many times throughout the course of the movie that you’d figure it’d tie in some way with the film’s main story or theme, but it doesn’t really. The only thing that I can think of is that it motivates the authorities disinterest in Josef’s stories about the dance school, but that’s about it.
The movie also gives a lot of time to Josef himself, who lost his wife in World War 2. There are many admittedly sad shots of him walking through the streets of a turmoil-stricken Berlin, and the scene where he’s briefly reunited with his wife Anke (played in cameo by Jessica Harper, the star of the 1977 original) is really quite touching. There’s also a very well acted scene where Josef is given the opportunity to have his memories of the women he failed in the past erased. Josef is perhaps the most compelling character in the movie. He’s certainly more compelling than the underdeveloped women at the school.
And there lies the problem. Had the movie been able to make the events that transpire at the school as developed and interesting as Josef's story, this might have been a far more compelling feature. Even if that were the case, the movie would still certainly lose a lot of points for its trashy, explosively gruesome, and frankly absurd climax. There is a subversive twist on the Suzy character that’s certainly daring (and makes some sense of Johnson’s emotionless performance), but the scene drags on and on, and there are also two figures that are the product of the film’s team of make-up artists. The first is a fairly unsettling creation; the other is so over-the-top that it’s positively laughable.
For a film that clearly wants to be taken so very seriously, this ending feels all wrong. You spend so much time giving this movie your full attention and searching for whatever meaning it’s trying to convey, only for it to rub your face in a much too long sequence filled with viscera, entrails, and exploding body parts like some cheap exploitation film. There’s also a shot of a nearly decapitated woman who’s still alive that feels like something out of a cartoon. After that, it’s almost impossible to take the movie as seriously as it wants you to take it.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that the women in the school are, in spite of some very good performances, the least interesting characters in the movie. Mia Goth brings a bubbly energy to Sara, but her character remains flat and one-dimensional. Tilda Swinton is so fantastic that you practically forget how underdeveloped her character really is. Moretz is not in the movie for very long, but she acts up a storm in her brief scenes. Perhaps the most problematic character is Suzy herself, who (understandably) remains an enigma until her big twist, and Johnson brings very little to the character to compensate for the lack of interesting qualities.
So while this Suspiria didn’t really work for me, there is so much about the movie I do admire. Visually speaking, the movie, while it lacks the garish colors and elaborate sets of the first, is absolutely intoxicating, with spell-binding production design by Inbal Weinberg, and less showy but still sumptuous cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The dance sequences, while there are very few, and sublimely choreographed. And while the movie is never scary, there are some truly unsettling segments sprinkled throughout, the most memorable involving Suzy’s audition for Volk, where her dance moves (unbeknownst to her) lead to the complete destruction of another dancer’s body in a private dance studio. It’s very effective, although it does tend to go on for a lot longer than it should.
I truly did not hate this version of Suspiria, but like the original, it did leave me cold in the end. It also leaves me wondering what I’m supposed to take away from it. Whereas the first film never had any arthouse ambitions, this one does, and after two and a half hours, it should do more than leave you wondering what in the heck it was you just saw. Perhaps fans of the original may find more to embrace here than I did. I wasn’t a fan, so that doesn’t include me. Personally, I was more fond of Deep Red myself.
Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)
Rated R for strong (sometimes extreme) bloody violence, graphic nudity, profanity, and sexual references