In order to properly understand the overall tone and style of writer/director Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, one must first address its setting: 1977 Berlin, during which a series of violent events occurred that became known as “The German Autumn.” An insurgent group called the Red Army Faction partook in a series of bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, bank robberies, and shootouts with the local police force. They raged a revolutionary war against the West German government with an anti-fascist and anti-imperialism ideology.
Another notable event in 1977– Dario Argento released Suspiria, which he and Daria Nicolodi co-wrote, loosely based off of Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay ‘Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow’, a part of his book Suspiria de Profundis. The plot revolves around three mothers or witches that came into being during the 11th century and took up residency in three different parts of the world. Mater Suspiriorum/ Helen Markos (Mother of Sighs), the oldest and wisest; Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), the youngest and most cruel; and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears), the most powerful and beautiful, make up the sisterhood of sorcery that wreak havoc in a highly stylized fashion. Argento is renowned for his signature black-gloved kill scenes, vibrant use of color, and frequent collaborators including Nicolodi and progressive rock band, Goblin.
On the one hand, it makes sense to create films with elaborate use of color in order to offset and distract audiences from their bleak reality. However, in this new take on Suspiria, Guadagnino fully embraces the pain and trauma present during the German Autumn, as he wisely selects mundane color schemes that parallel the oppression of the times and desperate need for expression and catharsis that art arouses. Argento allowed viewers to have a polychromatic escapism in the moment of 1977, but in the modern day, it’s fitting to adjust the color palettes as a means of retrospection and deviate from the original narrative by tying in historical elements for story depth. Guadagnino claims this film as his own with subtle nods to the master of Italian horror. You don’t need to see the original to understand the new narrative, but I suggest viewing it at least once for the sake of staying open-minded about how truly fascinating another perspective can be within the realm of cinema.
Suspiria is structured in six acts and an epilogue. It opens with a seemingly deranged and desperate dancer named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is seeking help from her therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton donning masculine prosthetics). There is immediate transparency that her dance academy is run by a coven of witches which leads the film to explore its themes, shine in its practical effects, and explore a new territory with its narrative.
Following Patricia’s meltdown and disappearance, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an ambitious yet reserved dancer who grew up in the repressed Amish community of Ohio, arrives to the prestigious Markos Dance Academy run by matriarch Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). In her audition, Susie is instructed to dance without music. This is the first introduction of how pivotal movement is in the film’s plot and the use of the human body as an instrument for both creation and destruction. The choreography is the sacred key to conjuring violence from the coven, and they need to ensure Susie’s talent is strong enough to executive their necessary evils. The dance sequences are brilliant both in their significance within the storyline and razor-sharp delivery. Animalistic hunching, crawling and rolling across the floor, abrupt thrusts into open space and the fluid weaving around each other’s bodies is quite a marvel to witness. Screenwriter David Kajganich solely referenced female choreographers as inspiration, including world renowned instructors Mary Wigman and Sasha Waltz. While Argento is in favor of knives and stabbing sequences, Guadagnino opens up a whole new dimension of body horror and violence by utilizing dance as lethal spellwork. And by lethal, I mean brutally twisting and contorting to a disgustingly delightful degree that will leave you with a rivetingly repulsive sense of awe.
Madame Blanc begins to groom Susie by assigning her the lead role in their performance of Volk, a powerful production conceptualized from the days of World War II era Berlin. The socio-political themes linger throughout the film and provide insight to the world outside of the academy’s walls by way of newscast updates on the radio and television, but also inside the coven as the women hone their technique. The group of all female teachers keep a close eye on Susie’s abilities, nurturing her skills for their own cryptic purpose. Emphasizing illusion is their craft, nightmare sequences conjured up by Blanc are projected onto Susie as she sleeps through symbolic images pertaining to sexual awakening and repressed power. Bright pops of color, experimental camera work, and quick horrific images are induced like a bad acid trip as they fuse together in the gruesome giallo style comparable to Argento, Bava, and Fulci.
Power dynamics play out among the older generation of women, while the young dancers form a refreshing sisterhood that is otherwise void in most films revolving around female performers like Center Stage or Black Swan. There is no specific antagonist among the girls, clawing to get ahead or take revenge on the success of another. They support each other’s successes and display genuine concern for each other which is what makes the core of a coven so powerful. While the representation of witches can possess a multiplicity in pop culture and history, this anchor would have been interesting to explore deeper instead of narrowing the focus on the romantic backstory of Dr. Klemperer. Jessica Harper, who dazzled us with dread as Argento’s Susie Bannion, plays his fallen love interest in a subplot that feels drawn out and disjointed when discussing a politicized film about female witches. The doctor’s guilt over his inability to help the missing dancers is muddled with his own past and eclipses the coven narrative while robbing the witches of their opportunity to enhance those painful yet powerful themes instead.
While Suspiria successfully employs tension and its own unique visual aesthetic complete with glorious use of gore, the auditory elements fall short outside of climactic dance scenes. Thom Yorke’s score lacks the demonic torment of Goblin’s original. Instead, the tracks pull melodies inward to a subconscious degree. However, that could perhaps be its strength or intention. While Gobin’s sound was invasive and tantalizing from an outside perspective to further drive fear, Yorke’s sound resonates internally and cradles the narrative for growth that only vibrantly reveals itself explicitly in a memorable fashion when the girls take the stage. A singular film able to perform solo, Suspiria casts a seductive cinematic spell complete with visceral horror and captivating choreography. Like the blood-red costumes tightly bound around the girls’ bodies, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation weaves brutality and beauty together in devilish style.
/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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