Loving But Empty ‘Suspiria’ Remake Mistakenly Thinks It Has Something To Say
Witches be bitches. “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” a terrified Chloë Grace Moretz frets. So begins arthouse darling Luca Guadagnino’s questionably gender-empowering take on Suspiria, Dario Argento’s lowbrow disco-horror fantasia.
That 1977 baroque classic was brilliantly tarted-up with candy-colored visions of nightmarish delirium. This low-boil, crepuscular-hued 2018 update? Not so much. Barring a few moments of bluster, a handful of fright-night images, and a scarlet-bathed climax worthy of Cronenberg, this 21st-century Suspiria spurns schlock shock for moody gothic melodrama.
The basic premise remains the same: waifish American naïf Susie Bannion goes to an esteemed German dance academy wreathed with intrigue. She then realizes that the women in charge, principally a mysterious Madame Blanc, are secretly running a coven of witches headed up by Helena Markos—the embodiment of an ancient evil otherwise known as Mother Suspiriorum.
As tribute, Guadagnino still sets his version in 1977. But this time, Dakota Johnson is the new student, now an ex-Mennonite from Ohio. Tilda Swinton plays the porcelain-skinned Madame Blanc, who vacillates from supportive warmth to frosty imperiousness. Their pairing is delightful, with Johnson’s wide-eyed demeanor and baby-voiced eagerness tuned in perfect counterpoint to Swinton’s restless intellect wrapped in too-cool-for-school hauteur. And as Johnson becomes emboldened with steely confidence, Swinton gets softer and more vulnerably maternal.
SUSPIRIA ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: David Kajganich
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Craven
Running time: 152 min.
The insanity of this loving but overwrought update stands front and center in the impeccable camerawork. It features lots of nutso whip zooms onto bewitched faces and quick-cutting coverage of quiet dialogue, all punctuated by portentous audio rises and stings. The spine-tingling soundtrack, courtesy of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, runs through the film like a fever. But there’s a too-muchness going on, a sense that Guadagnino (obsessed with Suspiria ever since he was a child) has let his own vision of the movie detrimentally stew for decades.
The director has taken the lean, mean original tale and laden it with a filigree of sociopolitical talking points, which are supposedly to enrich and contextualize. The witches’ internecine power struggles play out against a pretentious backdrop of Naziism, Jungian analysis, the far-left bombings and kidnappings of the Red Army Faction, lapsed religion, Jewish survivor guilt, and Cold War checkpoints in a divided Berlin. So Argento’s nasty, stylish exercise in gore, a 100-minute hyperventilation of hysteria becomes, in Guadagnino’s well-intentioned hands, a frustratingly bloated two-and-a-half hours stuffed with ideas. Terror turns to tedium.
How exactly Germany’s historical upheaval at that specific time relates to witchcraft never becomes overtly clear, leaving the impression that there’s no connective tissue here, only half-baked post-graduate pretensions that feel like a bluff. Argento’s take, ostensibly Teutonic, floats eerily out of time, a nod to its subject’s centuries-old origins, and feels unsettlingly hermetic because of it. Guadagnino’s instead rigidly roots his interpretation in time (look, a David Bowie poster on one of the dorm walls!), making the sorcery just another kitsch flavor.
As for the second-wave feminism on display, the all-women, all-the-time world of the Markos Tanzgruppe sends a clear message that these sisters are doin’ it for themselves. Those few men poking around the edges (a pair of investigators from the Polizei, the octogenarian widower psychologist Jozef Klemperer) are expendable. But to what end?
“When women tell you the truth, you tell them they have a delusion!” an enraged witch wails at Klemperer in the film’s most overt condemnation of chauvinism. Otherwise, Suspiria deals in female-on-female violence—emotional, mental, physical. Even Susie’s Midwestern mother joins the pile-on of bitterness. “My daughter,” he says in a deathbed flashback. “She’s my sin. She’s what I smeared on the world.” Ouch.
Swinton actually plays Klemperer, in a cross-dressing put-on that even she has admitted to The New York Times was “for the sheer sake of fun, above all.” If you don’t know, you honestly won’t notice (I didn’t, the first time I saw the film). Yet Guadagnino intellectualized the decision as a way to inject “this element of femininity” into the sole substantial male role. Huh? Yeah, no, it’s really just because Tilda wanted to dress up as an 82-year-old man.
Suspiria is a delectably crafted study of paganism, troubled and troubling in equal measure. It’s also a bit of a mess and not especially horrific. Those who want to see some manical XX-chromosome mischief won’t be disappointed. But very few will fall under its spell.