By Janine Gericke.
In 1977, Italian horror legend Dario Argento released Suspiria – a seminal classic among horror fans and cinephiles. Luca Guadagnino, whose Call Me by Your Name won raves last year, has made a compelling albeit head-scratching homage to the original film. Taking place in 1977 Berlin, a young woman joins a prestigious academy and quickly learns that it’s hiding some dangerous secrets. Though it isn’t for everyone, this is easily one of my favorite films of 2018.
Berlin was divided. It was a time of strife and upheaval, but the rise of feminism and revolution was in the air. We are introduced to Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) who has fled the Markos Ballet Academy and meets with psychoanalyst Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton). She is distraught and desperate, needing to tell someone about what is actually happening behind the walls of the academy. “At the beginning, she gave me things. Perfect balance, perfect sleep. What if she wants to get inside of me? I can feel her. She can see me,” states a tormented Patricia. What is soon very apparent is that the academy is run by a coven of witches looking to possess a worthy student. After their meeting, Patricia vanishes. She leaves her journals with Dr. Kelmperer who then begins investigating the school. Shortly after Patricia’s disappearance, we meet Susie (Dakota Johnson) who travels to Berlin to audition for the acclaimed academy. Without any professional training, Susie is a natural and soon impresses Madame Blanc. As Susie quickly assumes Patricia’s old position, some of the girls begin to suspect that something isn’t quite right.
The cast is startlingly good. Dakota Johnson absolutely owns the role of Susie Bannion. The original Susie, Jessica Harper, also plays a small but pivotal role in this new film. And, of course, Tilda Swinton continues to astonish by playing three separate roles in the film: Madame Blanc, the director of the Markos Dance Academy; Dr. Josef Klemperer, a character created for this film and credited as actor Lutz Ebersdorf; and possibly Helena Markos, one of the ancient witches. I’m not 100% sure about this one. Watching this film, I became convinced that Swinton must have secretly snuck into many more films – she so completely disappears into these roles. And, the scenes between Johnson and Swinton are just too good. The way they look at each other, feed off of each other, it’s as if they can actually read each other’s minds.
Guadagnino’s film is aesthetically pleasing, taking on a more minimalist palate than Argento’s technicolor nightmare with its gorgeous stained-glass windows and surreal imagery. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes a more realistic approach, instead focusing on the look of Berlin and the dancers themselves. The cinematography is alluring. There may not be a room full of barbed wire, but there is a room of mirrors, which hosts one of the film’s more horrific scenes involving a dancer who dares to rebel against the coven. The choreography in this film is more contemporary and expressionist than the original, depicting dance as a form of possession. Yet another way the film comments on the time, with a rebirth of the new. The body moves in unnatural ways and the dancer allows a certain darkness to take over. There is a manipulation of the body, which can at times become grotesque. As the women dance, you hear them grunt and strain as they jerk their limbs in unusual ways. Radiohead front man Thom Yorke’s score adds another dimension to the film. The electronic and ghostly score very much captures life in Berlin.
Suspiria has divided audiences, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. We need films that cause a reaction, get people talking. Hopefully many will see the film if just out of sheer curiosity; I would recommend watching the original first. I liked looking for the similarities and major differences between the two films. If you love a bit of ambiguity, this is right up your alley. It’s a film I will watch again, and probably again. The film provides style and substance and left me thinking about it for days.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.