Guadagnino’s visceral, gaudy retelling of Argento’s classic
Far are the twinkle-twinkle soundscapes and fluorescent adolescents of Argento’s psychosis-warping horror classic, renowned not so for its corny script and hilarious dubbing, but for the utilisation of vibrancy in a lucid fairytale turned spooky fable. Luca Guadagnino (fresh off the success of the sumptuous homoerotic love story Call Me By Your Name) has put a drab, sub-textual spin on the dancing witches, and fattened the run-time to an intimidating 152 minutes. But this challenging, not entirely successful remake, stylised with ostentatious grotesqueness and manipulated historical pretext, is a densely realised work of cinema.
“They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” a disillusioned Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) pleads to psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton). She’s on the run from a supposed coven of witches at the Markos Dance Academy, a notion Klemperer cannot sanction but does dabble in investigating. Meanwhile, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an American Mennonite from Ohio is admitted to the school, swiftly filling Patricia’s gap while also catching the eye of Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton), a fearsome but intimate teacher part of an ongoing power struggle to lead the coven with the more nefarious, unseen Helena Markos (also, Tilda Swinton).
Guadagnino, unlike Argento’s twilight setting, frames the grim nightmare against the backdrop of the politically divided 1977 Berlin, within an unlikely constricted aspect ratio in today’s affinity with widescreen. Glimpses and soundbites of newscasts around the Lufthansa 181 Flight hijacking interject prolonged moments of comment and witchcraft. Klemperer is still grieving the absence of his wife Anke (Jessica Harper, the original Susie who makes a short cameo here), who is presumed to have been killed during the Holocaust. The extra thematic heft added to the phantasmagoric witchcraft feels contrived, intended to add a layer of deeper commentary on the power of sisterhood and culpability in an era formed by a nation’s guilt – but those ideas don’t form naturally as part of the viewing.
The direction, particularly in the opening three acts, is a bizarre exhibition. Sequences are woven with disenchanting editing, disjointed and overly forceful. The scenes are clearly constructed with an artistic intention, such as the deliberate but off-putting use of cheap, hazy slo-mo, but only sporadically do Guadagnino’s ambitions translate into effective filmmaking. Unlike Argento’s ethereal world, there’s an overriding dullness in the drab cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, parallel to the tension of the time perhaps, but a lack of beauty is evoked from within the grey. What’s reassuring is this isn’t a pale simulacrum of its predecessor, rather it’s an entirely separate interpretive dance.
The difference does not equate to quality, however. Extraneous exposition casts a long shadow over the long, patience-shredding runtime, reflected most purely in a tacked-on epilogue. The coven is presented as some sort of mundane, less mysterious union than the unsettling teases of the original’s leaders. The Three Mothers concept is fleshed out in an effort to slide away from ambiguity though. From notes in Klemperer’s notebook, we learn of Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum, and Mother Lachrymarum, three figures who existed before all time. Markos claims to be Suspiriorum, ‘the mother of sighs’, but scepticism is rife among the witches.
Johnson is great as Susie, unlike Harper’s more traditional heroine, is afforded more intriguing character development. Her dancing has a spellbinding, unbound rhythm, evidenced through her years of training in between other projects in the lead-up to filming Suspiria. Swinton’s trifecta of performances have a range of successes and failures though. Markos is largely absent from the picture, and the decision to cast her in Klemperer’s role is puzzlingly distracting, coming across as more of an ego indulgence than efficacious work. But as Madame Blanc, her salty wit combined with a creeping, gravitating maternal presence is a bewitching feat. The way scribe David Kajganich plays the two off against each other as the time-bomb keeps ticking on is perhaps the greatest success in keeping the enigma of the terror alive.
It’s a horror mostly focused on mood, but nausea emerges from the material on more than one occasion. Just prior to the beginning of Act 3, Guadagnino handpicks and arranges imagery with the capacity to scare, disturb and hypnotise in a lurid burst. Soon the film settles into its groove, with extravagant body-horror growing out of mesmerising, intense dances, often resulting in bone-crackingly diabolical set-pieces. The filmmaking comes together (including Thom Yorke’s pulsating score) and elicits tension from the most seemingly insignificant actions (the anxiety of Susie improving her jump never eases). Then arrives the climax, a grossly uncomfortable, near-out of body experience on a destructive, hellish scale hitherto undreamt of. Give your soul to the dance, but prepare to be very sweaty.
A beguiling, macabre, at times feverish remake with more to admire than enjoy. It’ll churn your soul.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm