Susie Bannion’s body is an instrument, an undulating chord of spine manipulated by outside forces to write symphonies. Her music is black magic and revolution, dance and danger. She auditions for and is quickly accepted into the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin. It’s 1977, German Autumn, the city embroiled in political and social chaos. The cacophony of bombs is beset by experimental dance in the Markos halls. Susie and her generation of dancers bristle against an archaic institution indoors like the Red Army Faction does in the streets.
But Susie’s revolution struggles to coalesce in ways that feel fully her own, the most notable failure of Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Suspiria remake, which unlike Dario Argento’s 1977 original, uses the bodies and carnage of women to tell the story of male guilt. Dr. Jozef Klemperer (played by “Lutz Ebersdorf” who is actually Tilda Swinton in distracting prosthetics) is a psychotherapist drawn to Markos after a patient of his named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) informs him the academy is a front for a coven of witches. His story bookends Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and his moral quandary is threaded into the film in ways both touching and frustrating. Guadagnino uses Klemperer to deconstruct the ways men observe and mishandle female narratives, which is deployed effectively in certain scenes but ultimately hogs time from the central coven.
Upon her acceptance into Markos, Susie grows close to the company’s director and choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton without prosthetics), who – along with the her fellow faculty witches – is secretly prepping Susie for a ritualistic sacrifice. Despite this, the two develop a fascinating mother-daughter bond, built on the foundation of Susie’s recent departure from her Mennonite homestead in Ohio. In her dreams – a collection of macabre vignettes that lend Suspiria a poetic vitality – Susie has visions of her dying mother, of decaying bodies, of the same occult symbols that seep into Blanc’s choreography. We learn that she was drawn to Berlin by divine design, and that her ascent to lead dancer is a “chosen one” arc more than a mark of obsessive talent. Her cosmic significance becomes hauntingly obvious in the film’s gory, maniacal, and frankly indescribable final chapter. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich take Susie on a macabre and beautiful journey, one that mines the dangers of repression and antiquated ideologies, and forges something new.
The most powerful aspect of Guadagnino’s Suspiria is its true mastery of tension. It’s hard to believe the same man recently made Call Me By Your Name, a film lush with tender affection. Suspiria is devoid of anything resembling tenderness, preferring bone-snapping body horror, mutilated crawling bodies, and caverns of exploding heads. One sequence that comes relatively early in the film shows off the terrifying power of the coven. As Susie bends and folds in rhythmic dance, her disobedient classmate Olga literally bends and folds in a nearby practice room. The harrowing, hard-to-watch scene ends with Olga in pretzel form, her body leaking fluids as Susie collapses, unaware that she just served as a human voodoo doll. To his credit, Guadagnino never luxuriates in this or any torment of female bodies, and the horror sequences are sparse. Instead, the film bakes in quiet tension, a finger luring you down a dark hallway.
Unfortunately, despite an almost three-hour runtime, there’s a quality of emptiness as the credits roll. There exists a chilly distance between much of what we see and much of what we learn. The coven, for example, is rich with distinct and conflicting personalities, but none of the witches save Blanc feel like characters. Mia Goth is a standout as Susie’s spirited roommate Sara, but her own path of discovery feels stinted and unsatisfying. No one else in the company has speaking lines, and therefore they – and the coven as a whole – feel more like an institution than a sisterhood.
Nothing Guadagnino does is misogynistic in the slightest, but Suspiria is missing a strain of femininity that might lend it a deeper, more satisfying power. As Susie dances to the drum of Thom Yorke’s haunting score, his voice blaring over her moments of self-discovery, it’s hard to ignore how inherently male the film’s perspective is, from every angle. That’s not, in itself, a problem, and the film seems aware of this in its meta use of Klemperer, who must contend with years of putting women in danger. Suspira feels like an apology and an absolution all at once, but one that comes without any real women giving the bidding. It’s a beautiful, ambitious, big film, but it’s missing that last wicked ingredient.
4 OUT OF 5
Image: Amazon Studios