Thursday, July 18, 2024

‘Suspiria’ Casts an Effective but Weak Spell

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It’s been two days since I saw Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria.  In those two days, I have mulled over the images and sounds of what I saw and I am no closer to understanding any of it than when I left the theater as the credits rolled. Suspiria is a mess, engaging though it may be, as it gets lost inside its own head.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria bears little resemblance to Argento’s original version—a coven of witches masquerading as an elite dance academy being the only real similarities. The two directors are vastly different in style and execution. It stands to reason that while the basic story is the same, the visual and stylistic narratives are not.

The driving force of Guadagnino’s Suspiria is the sensuality of bodily movement. In particular women’s bodies and the desire for control that they seek to have over them through dance. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich, attempt to weave into this: Nazi guilt, Baader-Meinhof RAF, and the stark dichotomy of life in late 70’s East and West Berlin. The duo wishes to draw parallels between them and our own modern creeping fascism. Unfortunately, it goes nowhere and means nothing within the context of the film.

Watching Suspiria, I couldn’t help but wonder what this supposed feminist political anti-fascist allegory had looked like had it been directed by a woman. Despite Guadaginino’s best effort, the male gaze still exists throughout much of Suspiria, albeit clouded by narrative pretentiousness and good intentions; but it’s there nonetheless. While a cloud of palpable sensuality hangs over every frame of Suspiria it is a sort of safe sensuality. Susie (Dakota Johnson) and Sara (Mia Goth) share a bed late one night. The moment lacks any kind of real tension or danger. Guadagnino has created a sensual film but doesn’t care a jot about intimacy. The sensuality that pervades Suspiria is a heteronormative kind, stale and safe.

Take for example how Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the cinematographer, frames Susie. For the most part, she is positioned in the center of the frame, full body at a slight distance. But at times Mukdeeprom will place his camera behind her as she walks away. Her posterior dead center in the frame. Susie writhes about on the dance floor, her body the point of view of the camera is almost leering.

Yet, Murkdeeprom’s work is, despite this, impeccable. Much of how Suspiria works its spell over us is the sharp and unconventional angles Murkdeeprom and Guadagnino choose to convey the pervading sense of dread. We are kept off kilter by long takes where most would use short takes and vice versa. In short, the mood of Suspiria is a crowning achievement so staggering that the narrative and the thematic quagmire of the story barely leave a dent.

It helps that Johnson, the Mennonite from Ohio, and Swinton, the clandestine headmistress of Satan’s Dance School For Girls, are hypnotic. Johnson’s physicality throughout all of Suspiria is an act of sheer will and inventive gymnastic artistry. Her Susie may play at the naive country bumpkin but her eyes shine with a different story. 

Tilda Swinton is renowned for her, what I can only call her, Christopher Walken-ness. Much like Walken, Swinton has an oddness about her. A quality both alien and yet deeply human and soulful. Genetically incapable of giving a boring performance her Madame Blanc is a stunning and joyous exhibition of her talents. Playing a seemingly benign character who might be hiding dark mystical powers and motives is classic Swinton.

I haven’t talked much about the plot of Suspiria for one very good reason; I’m not sure you can. Suspiria operates on creating a sense of dread, confusion while plying you with an impending sense of doom interspersed between moments of interpretive dancing. Interpretive dancing is a horrifying act all it’s own, but throw in Guadagnino’s misguided political themes and it achieves a brand new level of horror.

So much of Suspiria is the building of our slow simmering apprehension as we begin to fear each passing scene afraid of when the film might erupt. A scene featuring, Olga (Elena Forkin) a dancer who has grown suspicious of the matrons of the Markos Academy, acts as a pinprick to help relieve the mounting tension. She calls out the matrons for her belief in their involvement of the disappearance of her friend Patricia (Chloe Grace-Moretz). The scene is a tense and almost gut-wrenching as we watch Olga’s body turned into a grotesque pretzel.

Yet, this scene while effective and masterfully filmed and edited, highlights the inconsistencies with Gudagnino’s feminist empowerment subtext. Yes, the men in Suspira are mocked and humiliated but their fate pales in comparisons to Olga’s. Olga’s scene is the one scene of sheer terror. Even the ending, an almost orgiastic gonzo bonanza of writhing nude forms and disembowelments, is more brutal to the women than the single man who is present.

I recognize this as the function of the horror genre. What I’m saying is the theme of the narrative are at odds with the function of the genre in such a way that it undercuts the whole enterprise. Instead, we are left with a lovingly crafted horror film which is mired by its own psychological inconsistencies.

If this review seems as if I’m talking in circles it is only because Suspiria seems to be going in its own circles as well. Enthralled as I was by the end I found myself entertained but also somewhat disappointed. When the lights came on I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Well that certainly was a movie.”

In the end, I think that sums up my thoughts on Suspiria. A dense, weird, methodically paced movie at odds with itself. I kind of loved it. But I also don’t feel like I ever want to sit through it again. As I said, it’s a movie; just not a good one.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

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