Released in 1977, Dario Argento
's giallo classic Suspiria (1977)
has a plot you could fit on a stamp - a young American dancer goes to a famous Dance Academy in Germany, only to find it's a front for a witches coven. By no means is it a good film, with terrible acting, a dire script, and laughable effects, but it's immensely enjoyable, mainly because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Luca Guadagnino
's remake is the polar opposite - it has an intricate plot covering all manner of themes and topics, featuring several new characters, and setting everything against a complex socio-political background; the acting and effects are excellent; it takes itself very, very seriously; and it continually tries to prove to the viewer that it is much more than a piece of kitsch horror. The real question, however, is not how similar or dissimilar it is to Argento. The real question is whether the film is a beautifully mounted insightful exploration of female sexuality, a celebration of a self-contained matriarchy set against the destructive chaos of a failing patriarchy, and a psychoanalytical investigation of national trauma and World War II guilt, or is it an overlong, dull, self-important, incoherent mess, that in trying to be both feminist and feminine somehow ends up being both misogynist and misandrist?
Set in "Divided Berlin", the film begins with Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz
, who appears to be cornering the market in rubbish Hollywood remakes), a student at the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Academy arriving at the home of her psychoanalyst, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton
, credited as Lutz Ebersdorf). Terrified and not making much sense, Hingle tells Klemperer she has discovered something sinister about the Academy and is now in fear for her life. Meanwhile, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson
), a Mennonite from Ohio, arrives at the Academy hoping to audition. Impressed with her abilities, lead choreographer Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton, channelling Pina Bausch
), admits her to the Academy, and Susie quickly finds herself dancing the lead in the Academy's upcoming piece, Volk. Elsewhere, Klemperer is trying to find out what happened to his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper
, who played Susie in the original), who disappeared in 1944, whilst also investigating the Academy, enlisting the aid of Susie's roommate, Sara Simms (Mia Goth
). Meanwhile, the coven holds a fractious election for leader.
Set in October 1977, the events of the German Autumn are constantly on the fringes of the narrative; Ulrike Meinhof's death in police custody in May 1976, the imprisonment of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, the activities of the far-left, anti-imperialist terrorist group Red Army Faction, the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, and the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer. And it is in relation to politics where we encounter the first, and certainly not the last, of the film's problems. Guadagnino, working with screenwriter David Kajganich
, employs a pseudo-Jungian approach to show that the country's political turmoil runs parallel to the struggle for control of the coven. The once harmonious group has now devolved, just like Germany, into factionalism, backroom political manoeuvring, subterfuge, and animosity. But to what end does he make this parallel? What is he trying to say? Rarely have I encountered a narrative which employs such blatant yet inconclusive and vague political contextualisation. Take the Berlin Wall as an example, which is literally right outside the Academy's door. Why is it there? Why are there so many shots of it? What purpose does it serve in the narrative? None of the political symbols amount to much; they certainly don't inform any grand thematic statement or political thesis. Guadagnino bombards the viewer with empty historical and political themes which do nothing for the central storyline, functioning instead as decoration, trivialising and disconnected.
Also important in relation to the film's politics is Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("Overcoming the past") - essentially, Germany's attempt to come to terms with World War II and the Holocaust. This is primarily seen in Klemperer's search for his wife, which throws up another problem. Klemperer, who is not in Argento's original, is a surrogate for the audience. Nothing wrong with that, it's a standard screenwriting technique used to facilitate more organic exposition. However, he is a distracting and painfully on-the-nose device to afford Guadagnino a vehicle for a political subplot, which is superfluous to what is happening in the coven. Every reference to Anke could be removed from the film, and it would work just as well. In fact, it would work better. In a story ostensibly about the Feminine, it's rather troubling that the emotional core is male. The film's preferred point of view is his, with even the epilogue focusing on him. Klemperer is quite literally a man in a woman's world, but exactly why Guadagnino felt the need to shoehorn a man into a story about women is anybody's guess.
Which brings us to another theme; femininity (if not necessarily feminism). Susie is told by head matron Tanner (Angela Winkler
) that the academy ensures the "financial autonomy of our girls"; speaking of Nazi Germany, Blanc says the regime wanted women to "close their minds and keep their uteruses open"; Susie is reminded that "before the war, Germany had the strongest women". As Klemperer is played by Swinton, the film effectively has an all-female cast (apart from two cops whose main scene involves the witches hypnotising them and mocking the size of their genitalia). However, the film isn't interested in idealising female empowerment. Instead, it depicts a matriarchy beset by disruption and the chaos of a struggle for power; Guadagnino tells Jezebel, "if we talk about the Great Mother, we cannot deny the terrible mother. True feminism is something that doesn't shy away from the complexity of the female identity."
But does the film imply that a powerful group of women is something to be inherently feared? Partly. There's a very thin line between condemning the male gaze and recreating it, and it's a line which Suspiria frequently crosses. Maybe the problem here is simply that a story inherently about matriarchy, female empowerment, and the importance of motherhood, is a story a man can't tell very well. I'm reminded of Sofia Coppola
's remake of The Beguiled (2017)
, of which she argued, "this story had to be directed by a woman. The essence of it is feminine, it's seen from a female point of view." Suspiria also has a feminine essence, but it doesn't have a female point of view, and one can't help but wonder what a talented female director like Coppola, Mary Harron
, Patty Jenkins
, or the genius that is Lynne Ramsay
would have made of this material.
However, even aside from these problems, there are a plethora of other issues. The character of Blanc is poorly written, and is stripped of agency towards the end of the film. As for the matrons, apart from Tanner, none receive an iota of characterisation; they are simply a jumble of non-individualised extras. The same is true of the dancers. Additionally, there's a cliché-riddled scene showing Blanc telepathically channelling nightmares to Susie, full of images of skulls, worms, rotting flesh, etc. Nothing we haven't seen a hundred times before. Finally, the film is immensely silly in places. For example, the much-talked-about climax is presided over by what can only be described as a female Jabba the Hut wearing sunglasses.
From an aesthetic point of view, there's a great deal to admire, as one would expect from Guadagnino. link=nm0002576]'s editing is wonderfully disjointed and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
's compositions are fascinating, often putting the camera in such a position as to purposely give a less than perfect view of a particular space. Combined, these two techniques are disorientating and frequently defamiliarising, rendering mundane geographical spaces as foreboding and unknowable, almost protean, never allowing the viewer to forget that something is not quite right in this milieu. Contributing to this sense is the blocking, particularly the recurring motif of staging conversations so that one character is off-screen, only visible to the audience via reflection. Especially noticeable is the film's colour, or lack thereof. Whereas Argento's original was awash in garish and exaggerated reds, purples, blues, greens, and yellows, Guadagnino's remake was conceived as "winterish", with as limited a use of primary colours as possible; grey, beige, and brown predominate.
Self-indulgent like little else I can think of, Suspiria is absolutely convinced of its own profundity. Far, far too long and far too self-serious, its themes and messages are poorly iterated, it's insanely dull for long periods, and it's badly unfocused. It's almost an hour longer than the original, and, honestly, it uses that hour to say precisely nothing of interest. The simple fact is that the slight story at the film's core (a coven of witches using a dance academy as a front) is unable to bear the massive weight of themes and narrative diversions heaped upon it; the vehicle just can't carry the message. Its politics are no more insightful than tabloid headlines, and serve only to detract from what is supposed to be the narrative's focus. Ultimately, it has little to say about femininity, feminism, political protest, the Holocaust, Cold War Germany, or World War II guilt, but it sure works hard to convince us it has a great deal to say about such topics. As cold as the Berlin winter it depicts, Suspiria is equal parts emotionless, mechanical, and dull.