Well, it’s here at last: Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Giallo classic Suspiria hit cinemas this week. And I had to admit, I was really intrigued. I found Guadagino’s acclaimed Call Me By Your Name an interesting, handsome, but ultimately often unmoving picture, but the trailers for Suspiria matched with the rave previews had me ready to go. Horror, by an almost aggressively arthouse director? I’m in.
This version of Suspiria uproots the action to post-War Berlin, after the East-West divide, and follows a talented, sheltered young American dancer Suzy (Dakota Johnson) as she auditions for and becomes a part of a prestigious dance academy headed by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, who also plays the film’s male lead, a therapist investigating the mystery of the dance academy). As Suzy sinks deeper into the academy, her own naivete seems to give way as the secrets of the academy begin to reveal themselves, and a dark coven at the centre of the enigmatic school puts a frightening plan into motion.
There’s a part of me that thinks this is a gorgeous movie. There is a part of me that respects Guadagnino’s commitment to the craft, to creating these lavishly beautiful, near-hypnotic dance sequences, to posing the staid grimness of post-War Berlin against the luscious luxury of the dance academy. That part of me also thinks Tilda Swinton is beyond incredible in both her roles, and that Mia Goth has proved she can turn a great performance here. I want this to be an arthouse horror classic with something bold to say, just like Get Out was last year, and sometimes, in the film’s lengthy 150-minute runtime, I can actually believe it. No matter what you think of Suspiria, it’s a magically well-made film, meticulously constructed, from score to ambient sound to cinematography to Lynchian dream sequences and beyond.
But there’s also a part of me that struggles to see where Suspiria comes together. For all its beauty, there’s an overwhelming sense of emptiness to the remake. Sure, there are a couple of half-articulated themes – duality being the overwhelming standout, between T-Swizzle’s tandem roles, to East and West Berlin, to the brutality of the violence versus the beauty of dance – but I walked out of this film feeling like I didn’t really know what it was trying to say, and that sense has persisted since then.
Dakota Johnson, though she’s certainly better than she was in the dire Fifty Shades franchise, never seems to get to the centre of her slippery character, blank where she should be enigmatic, a black hole in the middle of the story that threatens to swallow the whole thing entirely. With a more solid lead performance to articulate the themes, perhaps the film could have breathed a little easier, but Johnson is stilted and difficult when she’s going anything but dancing. And arthouse credo, no matter how pretty it looks, matched with empty plot and characters is really just pretension by any other name. When you take the point out of it – which I’m struggling to believe this version of Suspiria has – this is just a film that’s 40% reflective surfaces, 20% nudity, 15% faux-erotic moaning, and miscellaneous historical detail for the rest. It’s not bad to look at, but it’s bad to think about. And, at the end of the day, I know where I’d prefer a film to succeed.
And there’s yet another part of me – the part that studied feminist film theory – that wonders what this film is actually saying about women. It’s unarguably a film about women, with even the lead male role played by Tilda Swinton, but it’s also a film that feels as though it has very little to say about them. And what it does have to say…I’m not sure I like it. At the very heart of Suspiria is the notion that female power is seductive, beautiful, but ultimately dangerous and brutal, especially to other women (we see no actual violence against men take place on-screen) – and usually wielded by the youngest, prettiest, thinnest, whitest girl in the room.
That’s an interesting thing to explore if the film had actually delved into it, but it just feels like its dumping that deeply boring, uncreative, and vaguely misogynist notion and wandering off all pleased with itself. Add to this its constant use of brutalised naked female bodies and corpses, and the whole thing left me with a seriously bad taste in my mouth. Plus, without anything to weigh it down, the horror never lands as truly horrifying, a major problem for a film that attempts to unsettle with horrific violence the way this one does.
I think, at the end of the day, the problem with Suspiria is the source material. Which is not to say I don’t love Argento’s original, but its almost deliberately thin and without specific point: the colour, the sound, the frippery of it is what makes it so enjoyable, not the fact that I feel like I have to parse through it for deep meaning. But Luca Guagadnino’s version often seems to be striving for something deeper, with the handsome direction, attempts at historical commentary, and dual performances, while sticking with the ultimately lacking ideas of Argento’s original. The original Suspiria was never meant to be deep, but this one wants to be – just without putting in the effort to find anything beyond the surface-level to explore.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of Vulture)