REVIEW – ‘Suspiria’

I must preface this piece by stating you’re likely going to see plenty of film critics giving Suspiria a rave review. Some may even give it five stars. The word “masterpiece” will probably be thrown around more than a few times. And that’s entirely fine. For an arthouse film like this, reactions are bound to be hugely varied. Much like last year’s mother! (which I loved), this will no doubt stand as the year’s most divisive film. As I always say, an opinion of a film is entirely subjective. No one is right or wrong. There’s probably little grey area on this one. You’ll either absolutely adore it or you’ll utterly hate it. I wanted to love this film. I really, really did. However, much to my disappointment, I did not.

There have been a number of tweets and think pieces from other film critics and writers about the need to ruminate on this film and not be too quick to share your initial reaction. With that in mind, I must also preface I have sat on this review for over a week now. I have let Suspiria invade my mind. I have pondered over its intentions, its style, its imagery, and its overall impact. After a second or third viewing, it’s a film I could very well change my mind on. Or something I revisit in five years and have a completely different experience with. But a review of my opinion at this very moment is required. As such, here we go.

A reimagining (don’t call it a remake) of Dario Argento’s 1977 quintessential cult classic of the same name, director Luca Guadagnino‘s updated version shares a similar plot and setting with its predecessor. From here, the director takes his own daring path and expands on the foundations set by the original. While Argento crafted an intense, hyper colour, psychedelic 98-minute bloody nightmare featuring imagery that’s still remarkably striking today, Guadagnino takes a decidedly more muted visual approach in a slow-burn of a film that runs for an exhausting 153 minutes. You’ll feel every aching minute of this film, and maybe that’s entirely what Guadagnino wants. To be blunt, it had me wanting to gnaw my arm off out of sheer boredom. Yell at me all you want. I found this a tedious drag.

Taking place over six acts (yes, six) and one epilogue in “divided Berlin”, Suspiria is set during a turbulent period for Germany in 1977. The radical leftist terrorist group known as The Baader-Meinhof Gang is causing anarchy in the streets, while also hijacking a Lufthansa aircraft and holding the passengers captive on a runway in Mogadishu. The standoff between the radicals and authorities plays out during television news reports over the course of the entire film. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Much like the original, the film opens during a heavy storm, with a frantic Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz, in her fifth (!) horror remake) making her way through the rain to the office of her psychologist, Dr. Jozef Klemperer (I’ll play along and say he’s played by “unknown actor” Lutz Ebersdorf).

An American dancer studying at the nearby Helena Markos Dance Academy, Patricia has fled the school in fear for her life, ranting to Dr. Klemperer the school is run by a powerful coven of witches who are “trying to get inside of her.” Klemperer dismisses her babblings as nothing more than paranoid fantasies. As such, Patricia disappears back out into the cold, leaving behind her journal featuring mysterious drawings and pentagrams, all chronicling her descent into terror. Her sudden disappearance is equally dismissed back at the dance academy, where rumours swirl Patricia actually left to join the Red Army Faction terrorist group.

Her departure leaves an opening at the school, and, right on cue, wide-eyed and ambitious Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the Academy from Ohio to audition for choreographer and famed dancer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Despite having no previous formal training, Susie’s evocative dancing style leaves the teacher breathless, and she invites her to join their company immediately. After their failure to lure Patricia to their coven, Madame Blanc and the other instructors sense great promise from Susie that has nothing to do with dance.

When Patricia fails to reappear, Klemperer begins to investigate her claims more thoroughly, putting him in the crosshairs of Madame Blanc and the mysteriously absent Mother Helena Markos. Desperate for assistance, the doctor enlists the help of Patricia’s best friend, Sara (Mia Goth), who is equally suspicious of the strange activities within the Academy’s walls. As the pair move closer to uncovering the truth, Susie continues to dazzle Madame Blanc, who selects her for the lead role in the company’s upcoming performance of their celebrated piece, Volk, leading to a conclusion that’s as all-out insane as cinema gets in 2018.

It’s not often I throw my hands ups and declare I don’t think I can review a film, but that was my initial reaction to Suspiria. Much like mother!, it’s a film that could be saying plenty with hidden meanings and analogies. Or it could be saying absolutely nothing, and we’re all reading far too much into it. But with filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Guadagnino, few things are inserted into their films by chance. There’s deeper meaning to this messy piece of cinema. But it’s presented in such a tiresome way, you stop caring. Yes, this is a slow burn, but it moves at such a glacial pace, it practically grinds to a halt around the halfway mark. When Guadagnino does pull out all the stops for the blood-drenched finale, it’s far from a satisfying payoff for what you’ve endured getting there.

There’s no point in calling this film “pretentious,” as that assumes we fully understand Guadagnino’s intentions and are in a position to judge them as such. However, you can’t help feeling this was a vanity piece for the director, who drums to his own beat with no regard for how anyone will judge his creation. That has to be admired and he has indeed created something entirely unique and original. This looks and feels little like its predecessor. For those uninitiated, it won’t register a comparison. But for fans of the original, there will undoubtedly be disappointment. The understated and muted colour palette of Suspiria is dreary, to say the least. For 85% of the film, the most interesting colour to be found is Johnson’s fiery red hair. It’s an entirely purposeful choice and one that makes the gory hell of the conclusion that much more shocking. It just makes the rest of the film such a drab experience to endure.

What will wake you from your stupor is the film’s dazzling dance sequences, which thankfully bring the film back to life when it’s threatening to lose you completely. In the film’s most breathtaking moment, Susie performs a fiercely rhythmic routine, while another dancer finds herself trapped in a mirrored rehearsal room in the floor below. As Susie furiously twists and turns, her every move is matched by the dancer beneath, causing her body to be violently jerked around the room by an unknown force she can’t control. In what can only be described as a voodoo doll experiment from hell, the dancer is contorted into knots with agonising results. I’d use the word “pretzel” to describe her fate, but even that seems an understated term. It’s in this scene editor Walter Fasano showcases his impressive flair, with the action crossing between the two “dances” perfectly, creating a sequence that’s really quite stunning, albeit also entirely horrifying.

The film’s ultimate success is standing as a powerful piece of feminist cinema. In Suspiria, men are portrayed are relatively hopeless and useless, with two unfortunate policemen even humiliated and mocked mercilessly by several of the witches. Men stand by and allow women to suffer as the world burns, yet rarely never learn from their mistakes. Dr. Klemperer is consistently warned of the coven and their murderous intentions, yet refuses to act, even as the bodies begin to pile up. This plays on his backstory of the loss of his wife during the Holocaust, where he again failed to take action and a female suffered the consequences for his ineptitude. There’s a concerted effort to highlight the power unleashed when women join together, but this message gets muddled in the film’s conclusion when division causes the females to turn on each other. Does Guadagnino want women to unite or tear each other apart?

In saying all of this, there’s a hefty dose of genuinely unsettling imagery peppered throughout Guadagnino’s frustrating film that will linger long in your mind. Susie suffers some downright terrifying nightmares filled with bizarre and frightening visions of unspeakable horrors, few of which make any sense, making them that much more unnerving. The finale is overloaded with more grotesque moments meant to shock, but it’s portrayed with such blunt seriousness, it ultimately becomes rather comical and completely ineffective. The whole sequence is projected through a blood-red filter over the entire screen, which is either absolute genius or utter lunacy. I still can’t confidently decide.

An entirely ambitious piece, Suspiria will either leave you completely captivated or nauseatingly bored. There’s strong determination here from Guadagnino to create something special. Whether he achieves that is up to you. It’s a grandiose calamity that’s visually striking at times, but it’s trying just a little too hard and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Far from a horror film and a rather arduous task to experience, this isn’t likely to leave you shaking your seat. But it is a film that will demand discussion, introspection, and reevaluation for years to come. For now, I’m calling this is a conflated mess that left me fairly irritated.

Distributor: Transmission Films
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Christine Leboutte, Malgosia Bela, Fabrzia Sacchi, Jessica Harper
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: David Kajganich
Producers: Gabriele Moratti, William Sherak, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Francesco Melzi D’Eril, Luca Guadagnino, David Kajganich, Marco Morabito, Bradley J. Fischer
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Production Design: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Thom Yorke
Editor: Walter Fasano
Running Time: 153 minutes
Release Date: 8th November 2018 (Australia)