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Twisted sisters: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’

By Anwen Crawford
Sentimentality ruins the magic of this otherwise unsettling and actively cruel film

Concerning the adventures of Suzy Bannion, ballet student and all-American ingenue, amid a witches’ coven disguised as a Berlin dance school, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is a furious trip inside a nightmare that lies in wait beyond the right door. It’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) if the Wicked Witch of the East had never been felled by the house, and Dorothy never found her friends. And as one of the last films to be shot using the same Technicolor process that brought us MGM’s beloved musical, Suspiria shares with its ancestor a gel-bright, fantastic ambience designed to burn itself into the memory. In short: it’s a hell of a film, and (so it would seem) a fool’s errand to remake.

Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, Call Me By Your Name), contemporary cinema’s dab hand at the heady dreams of the European bourgeoisie, is absolutely the wrong director to take on Suspiria, or he would be, were it not for the fact that his sumptuous romances have tucked into their linens nagging questions concerning cruelty, obsession, the constitution of groups, and the uses of belief. For two-thirds of his two-and-a-half-hour film – Guadagnino insists that his Suspiria is an homage, not a remake – he appears to have pulled it off; succeeded in making a film that’s not simply about cruelty, but actively cruel. Alas, his abiding belief in the power of love ruins things in the end. The film falls short of its most interesting ambitions, but its failures are largely arresting.

Guadagnino wrings as much as he can from the film’s Berlin, 1977, setting. The Markos Dance Academy, nest of the coven, is flush up against the Berlin Wall. An elderly psychotherapist, Dr Klemperer, has a vaguely sketched tragedy in his past to do with the abuses of Nazi Germany; he is treating Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a nervous runaway from the academy who has uncovered its occult purpose but may also be tangled up in the last, desperate manoeuvres of the Red Army Faction, whose leaders, in real life, were shortly to die in violent and still disputed circumstances inside Stammheim Prison. The weather is frozen, the colour palette drained of life; it’s the Cold War, baby. One can practically hear the frigid fibrils of David Bowie’s “Warszawa” settling like a blight over the streets. (A period soundtrack might indeed have been a better choice than the original score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, whose angelical songs seem to have drifted in from an altogether more diaphanous film.)

Into this divided city comes the new Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who has left behind a sheltered religious upbringing in rural Ohio in order to devote herself to dance, and more specifically to the taxing modernist choreography – part Isadora Duncan, part Oskar Kokoschka – of the Markos Academy’s director, Madame Blanc. Blanc is played by (who else?) Tilda Swinton, who roves barefoot through the school in sombre floor-length gowns, issuing husky-voiced instructions, engaged all the while in an endless pas de deux with her cigarette. Oh, she’s strict, oh, she’s witchy, oh, she’s Swinton!

Given that several of Guadagnino’s previous films demonstrate a preoccupation with the difficulties of speaking – in A Bigger Splash (2015), Swinton played a rock star on vocal rest, while Call Me By Your Name (2017) pivots around the mutual failure of young lovers to say what they really feel – it is no surprise that, in this Suspiria, dance itself is granted all the generative power, and danger, of a language. Blanc’s choreography spellbinds the academy’s students together into a community of speakers: body speakers. Words may hurt, so movement hurts. The film’s strongest sequence comes relatively early, when Susie dances a routine that causes a dancer in another room to be tortured, her body wrenched into grotesque new alphabets. Susie is both aware and unaware that her dancing is causing another body to be spoken through, and the sequence, which is relentlessly visceral, suggests something difficult but undeniable about the ways in which women can do violence to each other, through what we say, and through what we make – and are made to make – our bodies signify.

And did I mention that Madame Blanc’s incantatory choreographic masterwork is called Volk? Of course it is. Guadagnino can’t keep to one allegory when the temptation exists to mix them all up together. Nazis, witches, terrorists, feminists, patriarchies – phew. Over and again, Guadagnino tries to bridge the gap between historical events and a supernatural netherworld: the coven inside the dance school is, on the one hand, a creative, matriarchal space that has been sustained with great difficulty (we are reminded, many times) through the most murderous years of the modern German state; on the other, it is a murderous cult in and of itself, whose leaders, in the vanguardist way, keep its members ignorant of the full import of their program.

There are so many allusions at work here, and at its best the film keeps them all in the air, unsettled and also unsettling – until the conventional demands of narrative resolution take over, and the final twenty-to-thirty minutes become deflating, almost banal. Rather than trust to the evocation of images, and the viewer’s ability to feel their way into a kind of knowledge beyond reason – which is, after all, one of the great powers of horror as a cinematic genre – Guadagnino explains. He creates backstory. Dread departs and sentimentality takes over. “No one is alone” becomes the film’s concluding moral, which feels false, in so far as it cuts against a harder truth suggested elsewhere by the pile-up of symbols and subplots: that solitude is our damnation, because the transmission of meaning is always corrupted, somewhere along the line. We never convey what we intended to, or in the manner that we meant it. As the Sex Pistols once put it, in a song called “Bodies”, released in 1977: fucking bloody mess.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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