DIR: Luca Guadagnino • WRI: David Kajganich • DOP: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom • ED: Walter Fasano • DES: Inbal Weinberg • PRO: Bradley J. Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, David Kajganich, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Marco Morabito, William Sherak, Silvia Venturini Fendi • MUS: Thom Yorke • CAST: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick
Luca Guadagnino catapulted to acclaim when he directed the startling coming of age drama Call Me By Your Name, about an American teenager confronting the nature of his sexuality. Suspiria is his eagerly awaited follow up, itself a remake of the cult Dario Argento horror movie. But Guadagnino’s film, by contrast, is a car crash, and not even the lilting beauty of Thom Yorke’s masterful score can save it.
The updated film follows Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) as an addled teen from the American deep south who ventures to Berlin to escape her Christian upbringing and study at the prestigious Markos Dance Acadamy. Suspiria brings us into a duplicitous world where under the exterior of reality lies a menacing truth. It’s a world where fantasy and reality are at odds with one another and where characters are gradually lured further and further into illusion.
Suspiria is a film lost in its own arrogance and ego, and it’s a shame because its impossible not to acknowledge the potential for a really fresh psychological horror film to have been made here. By all accounts, the updated setting of Berlin 1977, and the political and social backdrop of RAF bombing are seriously great ideas, that really could have elevated it from the original Suspiria, but sadly these ideas are never fully utilized. From the very first scene, this is a film that tries to establish itself as an intellectual work or comment, but there’s no authentic connection or any clear thematic throughline, so the movie implodes under the weight of its own self-imposed seriousness. David Kajganich’s script is sprawling and lacks any coherent thematic focus, its a script so overcooked with intellectual ideas that it loses sight of a simpler more honest approach.
In terms of its visual aesthetic Suspiria excels. Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whose masterful lighting creates a profound sense of unease and horror. His work is complemented further by the production design by Inbal Weinberg, which really encapsulates that period in post-war Berlin, the cold muted colour palette of Berlin is nothing short of oppressive.
Susie Bannion is played by Dakota Johnson who brings a yearning desire and sexuality to the part. By contrast, Tilda Swinton plays Madame Blanc with an unsettling mix of militant hostility and affection, she also plays Dr. Klemperer and Helena Markos. They’re supported by a highly dynamic and versatile cast, which includes Chloe Grace Moretz and Mia Goth, among others. The performances are highly impressive, at times they’re death-defying and electric, but ultimately the cast is let down by an emotionally stilted script.
Overall, the use of violence is gratuitous and without any merit, had it been in service of a fully developed story and characters it wouldn’t have been an issue, (Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is a great recent example). But there are no real characters here, just flat caricatures sugar-coated with fake blood and overwrought concepts, and no one with a heart that beats could ever really care about them.
At its core its a film about the cost of illusion, and about how our search for meaning and value is often compromised by investing belief in illusions and desires. But ultimately the script is far too muddled to make this clear. The writer and director, seem to have mistaken abstraction for a lack of emotional clarity, this is a false assumption. Ingmar Bergman’s use of abstraction in cinema has never been bettered, he was a genius, and that’s partly because even when he presented us with something that didn’t make logical narrative sense like in Persona, it made clear emotional sense. This inherent understanding is totally missing at the heart of Suspiria, which is why anyone trying to find deep meaning in it should be wary, or at the very least skeptical. Beneath the guise of its own stylized aesthetic, this film struggles to find any real meaning and it does so at the expense of the audience’s engagement. This isn’t some serious comment on feminism, or motherhood or anything else, this is a film so absorbed in the concept of its own greatness, that it loses sight of its own theme, until it withers and dies on screen before us.