Warning: This article contains spoilers for Suspiria (2018).
Suspiria was one of my most anticipated movies of 2018, not least because its director is someone I greatly admire. Luca Guadagnino has been making a (bigger) splash on the indie movie scene over the last few years which culminated in last year’s critical darling Call Me By Your Name, igniting passion for his then-upcoming adaptation of Dario Argento’s ‘70s horror.
“I hope that this movie, made by a man, turns out to be experienced through its horrors as a sort of fierce showcase of the female artistic experience,” the director said earlier this year. “The relentless, unsentimental idea of femininity that I grew up witnessing, that I’ve been accompanied by in my life. It’s going to be the witches are back.”
The original 1977 film centered on Jessica Harper’s Suzy, an American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance school. Upon arrival, she soon realizes that dark forces are at work after several people are brutally murdered. This isn’t a normal dance school, it is run by witches, and they are preying on their students. This narrative link is one of the few similarities between Argento’s Suspiria and Guadagnino’s because, as the latter director has been at pains to point out, his film is not a remake but rather “a homage to the incredible, powerful emotion I felt when I saw it.”
Full disclosure: I have not seen the original Suspiria. I chose not to before seeing the film or writing this piece because I wanted to critique it objectively, without the baggage of expectations from Argento’s original offering. I think sometimes as critics we can too often let our appreciation for an original product sully our impression of a remake, or homage, instead of giving it a chance to stand up on its own. That being said, after watching Suspiria (2018) I left the theater feeling something I can only compare to having very, very unsatisfactory sex.
The film, set during the German Autumn of 1977, has two narrative journeys that run adjacent to each other but inevitably crash together at the end. One is traveled by Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion, a talented ballet dancer who has escaped her Mennonite upbringing to study under the tutelage of Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton. The second narrative centers on psychoanalyst Jozef Klemperer, the character who has earned more chatter online because of the fake news stories put out by Guadagnino that he is a real person called Lutz Ebersdorf and not Tilda Swinton in makeup. The latter has obviously been proven true.
Jozef’s side narrative continually reminds the viewer of his guilt (for letting his wife be taken by the Nazis) as he investigates the mysterious goings-on at the school after one of his patients, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), goes missing following a rather troubling session that opens the film. Moretz brings a paranoid frenzy to this scene, a brilliantly textured foreplay that excites you for what’s coming next, though it is only through the female characters that one reaps any sort of satisfaction.
From watching Susie’s writhing audition (which proves so powerful that it draws Madame Blanc to the room) to the grotesque dreams the witches conjure up in her mind and the horrific murder of one of her fellow dancers, all set against a soundscape of orgasmic panting and Thom Yorke’s chilling score, it’s hard not to be both mesmerized and disturbed. But then, every so often, you’re pulled out of this painful pleasure to focus on Lutz and his somewhat tedious outings, like when you’re having sex and your partner is doing something really good, touching you in just the right way, but all of a sudden they’ve shifted gears and you’re internally screaming in frustration.
It takes you out of the moment and causes you to veer off the pleasure path you were on until they get back on track, or more likely, you tell them how to. It really makes you question why Swinton went through the effort to play this character when their addition to the story ends up being the utmost mundane and disruptive to the flow of the main plot.
By the movie’s end, the worlds of Susie and Jozef collide as the witches offer an unholy dance of sacrifice in order to grant the company’s director, Helene Markos, the Tell-Tale Heart of the film, a younger body to reside in. Guadagnino goes so overboard in this penultimate scene — trying to shock you with Markos’ monstrous form, alongside nude dancers performing a ritualistic dance in front of Jozef’s naked form and disemboweled women — that it’s hard not to roll your eyes. The film has spent over two laborious hours exuding how woke it is with its not-so-subtle commentary on female empowerment and survival in spite of systemic misogyny, that to end with such a basic concept as an old woman willing to kill for a young girl’s body seems to defeat its purpose entirely.
There is so much huff and puff and performative feminism that without enough substance, or really much horror for that matter, it feels like a fake orgasm. A fake orgasm you resign yourself to because the sexual journey has been so up and down that you’ve lost the passion to climax properly and just want to get it over with. So for all Guadagnino’s enthusiasm to tell this story and bring his “teenage megalomaniac dream” to life, Suspiria is an unnecessarily long anticlimax that makes you wonder if a female director would have delivered a far more pleasurable adaptation.
I hope someday I’ll find out.
Suspiria is scheduled for a limited release by Amazon Studios in Los Angeles and New York on October 26, followed by Halloween screenings in select cities before opening wide and internationally on November 2.