Since the remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic was announced last year, vintage horror enthusiasts have been impatiently waiting for the release of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.” The Palermo-born film director, best known for the universally acclaimed “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), left his distinctive mark on “Suspiria,” directing a movie that is much more macabre yet just as visually exquisite, though in a different manner, than the original. Guadagnino’s film is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but it delivers gorgeous sets and intricate choreographies destined to leave audiences breathless in more than one way.
“Suspiria” is set in 1977 West Berlin and opens with Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a dancer from the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Company, barging into the studio of her therapist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, in a bravura performance). Patricia appears to be mentally unstable and accuses the women directing the dance academy of being witches, while her Jungian therapist casually draws pentagrams in his diary. The attention of the audience is soon after brought to Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an initially reserved dancer hailing from Ohio who moves to Berlin to pursue a dance career. Susie enrolls at the Helena Markos Dance Company, presided over by the elusive Mother Helena Markos, also played by Swinton. Swinton’s third role is as Madame Blanc, the head choreographer of the dance school, who is thoroughly impressed with Susie’s talent. During Susie’s first performance, Madame Blanc imbues her with a mysterious fluorescent force that connects her with the body of Olga, another dancer of the school who, as a result of this mystical connection, is fatally injured in a sort of voodoo ritual and later killed by the school teachers with a sickle-like weapon. Several more people are subjected to the quasi-ritualistic violence of Blanc and her colleagues, with many of the film’s central characters ending up dead by the end of the film.
Guadagnino’s film is successful in some respects, while a bit lacking in others. The set design of “Suspiria” is absolutely stunning and looks like it could have been the product of Miuccia Prada’s mind, with ugly patterns on the wallpaper of the dancers’ rooms and stark chromatic contrasts between the marbles in the main hall of the dance school. What is also unbelievably impressive is the makeup work on Swinton as she becomes Josef Klemperer; few would be able to tell it is indeed the British actress playing the therapist. The interpretative choreographies of the film’s several dance routines are also striking, evoking a strong emotional response in the audience. The costume design for the final performance, “Volk,” is picture-perfect for the dynamic choreography Madame Blanc claims she came up with a couple of years after World War II.
The historical context behind “Suspiria” is one of its most evident shortcomings. Narratively, there are many points that Guadagnino does not fully flesh out, much to the viewer’s frustration. For instance, Patricia is said to be a vehement political activist with affiliations to the leftist group, known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, in West Germany in the late 1970s. Another narrative dead end is found in the brief mention of Susie’s Mennonite background and her relationship with her mother, which appear to cause her much distress during frequent nightmares that are apparently influenced by Madame Blanc. The relationship that several characters entertain with World War II and Nazism is also quite unclear. Josef Klemperer appears to be a Jew who survived the Holocaust, and whose wife (Jessica Harper, who played Susie in Argento’s original version of the film) was killed in a concentration camp, but his story could be more fully developed and much is left to the viewer’s imagination.
Ultimately, “Suspiria” will not fail to keep audiences (especially fans of gory horror) captivated with its stunning set designs and choreographies, but it falls short from a narrative perspective.