Time to come clean; I have never seen the original Dario Argento Suspiria. Now, before you leave, let me tell you why that’s not actually a bad thing, at least in this situation. When a remake comes out it inevitably carries the baggage of the viewer’s opinion of the original with it, good or bad. Therefore, my having not seen the original puts me in a position where I can go into this new version free from expectations.
Young dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels to Berlin in 1977 in order to join a prestigious dance company. She is accepted and begins learning from Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) becoming increasingly aware that not everything is as it appears. Meanwhile a previous student Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) seeks the help of her psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer ("Lutz Ebersdorf") who had initially dismissed her fears as paranoid delusions but is now starting to realise that, perhaps, they are something more.
The film is fairly upfront that, yep, there are witches here. It removes any ambiguity that may be played with about the school and its secrets and allows the dynamic of the coven to take a more central position in the story. Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc is a curious enigma. What motivates her? Is she genuine in her behaviour towards Susie? Could it be that she is actually the lesser of the evils at work? Her dynamic with Susie - and also elements of the coven themselves - speaks to the theme of generational matriarchy that runs through the film. With the exception of Dr .Klemperer, there are no male characters of any significance or impact, and even then he is ultimately fairly powerless. This is a film about women and the power of the female, and in how one generation’s plans for the next can be received, rebelled against, or can destroy. Swinton does great work in both of her roles, playing two very different sides to the unfolding mystery.
Dakota Johnson’s wide-eyed innocence serves her much better here than it did in 50 Shades of Grey. Even when the film here gets to a point where you begin to wonder if that innocence is entirely genuine. The problem is that you don’t feel much of any connection to Susie or care what might be happening to her in this place. Much easier to empathise with is Mia Goth’s Sara, friend to both Susie and the missing Patricia, who your eyes are drawn to every time she is onscreen.
The film also has a political backdrop with it taking place during the upheaval of 1977 Berlin and the demos, civil unrest, and hostage negotiations. In addition to this, the time and place are particularly important to Dr. Klemperer’s personal history. The school also faces the Wall, so the setting is never far from our minds as we watch. It is an interesting subplot simmering in the background, the tensions almost running parallel to those within the school.
Guadagnino's vision is a little like a dream. Partially in the aesthetics - although he has gone on record as saying he wanted to get away from the lurid colour scheme that Argento favoured preferring to keep things in a grim grey landscape of rain and snow - but also in the way things jumps around and sometimes just happen with no real meaning. After a while this latter element gets a little frustrating. The unexplained is always scarier, yes, but there still must be something else there to grab our interest and there isn’t always that something there in Suspiria.
It also doesn’t help that the film isn’t surprising, scary, or even that shocking, and even when it tries to be there isn’t enough of an impart. The only exception to this is a fantastic scene where Susie dances and it's intercut with another girl - who is trying to escape the school - being thrown around with alarming force through Susie’s movements. It’s cut together with a brutal but beautiful intensity and even when you’re flinching as the girl’s body becomes more mangled you can’t quite look away. It’s easily the most memorable scene of the movie, with a later dance performance coming a close second.
The climax was on the underwhelming side and reminded me of the final scene of The Witch, Mother! at its most ridiculous, and an Edinburgh Fringe experimental stage show, but even then it probably isn’t quite as good as the word picture I just provided for you with that description. Thom Yorke’s soundtrack, whilst solid throughout the film, feels very misplaced and ill-fitting in this moment, taking you right out of things.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a work of art, it looks amazing and is clearly trying to say something, but some people will just look at it and find it trying too hard. Where you will fall will differ from person to person, but for me while there are things I liked, it never gripped me enough to fall under its spell.
At least now I’ll probably watch the original.