Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Malgorzata Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Alek Wek, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth
Rated: R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references
Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” was a poetic bloodbath ahead of its time. Now, director Luco Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”) brings us what he’s calling a cover of the original film — his own take on the story “an American girl joins a renowned dance company only to discover that it’s run by witches.” The character names are often similar or the same, as is much of the mythology underlying the tale, but so much is different that it’s hard to call this a remake. Hardcore fans of Argento’s film will need to set aside their detail-oriented love of the original to enjoy this homage.
Young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin in 1977 to audition with the world-famous Markos Dance Company. Once choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, as ethereal and alien as ever) sees her dance, she’s not only welcomed to the company but given a star role. She’s also ruthlessly used – for starters, in a viscerally horrifying scene early in the film. Blanc does something to her so that as Susie dances, a dancer who’s betrayed the company is twisted, beaten, and crushed until she’s folded in on herself into a ball of twitching, agonized flesh and broken, dislocated bones.
As the film progresses, we learn more and more about the dance company and their plans for Susie, which go far beyond making her the unwitting puppetmaster of a fellow dancer’s torture. This is a dreamy, slow-moving film — except for its horror sequences, which are sudden and unflinching. We eavesdrop on conversations among the older women, whose functions in the company are not always clear and whose conversations assume knowledge the audience doesn’t have. The film lures us into deeper and deeper strangeness, with little explanation, until we’re in over our heads and things get completely bonkers. There are many more questions than answers.
Johnson and Swinton are at the heart of the film, and do not disappoint. Folks who only know Johnson as “that girl from the “50 Shades” movies” are in for a surprise. She commits 110% to the role, tackling the long, expressive dance sequences with a complete lack of self-consciousness. She reportedly trained for almost a year leading up to filming, and it shows.
Swinton, of course, is Swinton. Her ethereal androgyny is robed in long, usually dark dresses and long, dark hair. Her Blanc moves with precise grace, whether she’s guiding a dancer, or standing nearly motionless and smoking a cigarette. She imbues Blanc with presence, making it utterly believable that she’s a worshiped choreographer and a not-quite-human witch.
Whether you’ll enjoy the new “Suspiria” depends heavily on two things: if you love or hate the original, can you come to the new one with fresh eyes? And, are you willing to be patient and piece things together one layer at a time as the film swirls and flows slowly, inexorably toward its intense, and deeply strange conclusion? This is a movie people either love or hate, there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, so choose wisely.