Suspiria 2018: A Dance of Ecstatic Auteurism
Luca Guadagnino really seems to enjoy his job. I imagine him as the kind of filmmaker that would find a textile pattern he liked in a hotel in New York City and fly his entire design team out from Rome to take notes on the print so they can recreate it, upholstered on a piece of prop luggage that’s only visible in one scene of his film. Or something along those lines. He’s a director who gets excited about the details, and who sees his subjects most clearly at close range, where those beautiful details — and often seams — are at peak visibility. Last year’s mega-lauded Call Me By Your Name took, arguably, a horrendously dull love story and dressed it up with such a wonderful coat of embellishments and attention to detail that the story’s lack of conflict or authenticity seemed almost frivolously beside the point. CMBYN was a dry bird that was basted very diligently.
Guadagnino’s stories are successful in their execution, if less in their premise. With an artistic perspective aimed at the micro level, where every quiver of every lip and every glint of every tear seems to boom with a 120-decibels-loud echo, his skill as a storyteller has become clear. And with his latest, Suspiria — his take on Dario Argento’s 1977 cult stalwart — he shows his brush stroke with more voracity than ever, for better or for worse (mostly better).
From the first frame to the last, everything in Guadagnino’s Suspiria seems deliberate. And by deliberate, I most certainly do not mean subtle. It’s is a film of extremes, and indulgences, which should be nothing new for fans of Argento’s entry. The camera moves emphatically, and with purpose. The morphing, churning light in Susie’s (Dakota Johnson) dream sequences feels designed, and bold. The dancing feels primal, and emotive. It is with purpose and with passion that Guadagnino wields his staff of magical auteurism at you. But, as much of the film’s criticism seems to be angled, the further you pull back on the story, the less his added plot points seem to hold together. But that’s not quite the point.
2018’s Suspiria adds a dash of pepper to the stew, taking the paper-thin plot of its predecessor and casting it against the Cold War, with some added characters and a smattering of historical references. As with CMBYN, the less you think about it and the more you let yourself feel about it, the more impactful the work becomes. The most central and wholly-new character in Suspiria ’18 is Dr. Josef Klemperer (played “secretly” by Tilda Swinton), a home-practice psychologist charged with treating the disturbed character of Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young dancer training at the Helena Markos Dance Academy who firsts teases the malevolent goings-on that will fuel the story. The film levies a surprising amount of plot responsibility and screentime on Dr. Josef, to the extent that the film actually ends with a shot of his and his estranged wife’s initials carved into the side of a house, letting that image linger as the 120-plus-minute romp fades to black. But as many others have been quick to mention, his role in the film’s story is left noticeably without payoff, or apparent consequence.
For the most part, I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. But when approaching the film perhaps with more consideration of the director’s intention, surmised very liberally by me, his addition as a character isn’t completely without purpose.
The story of Suspiria, especially in its current form, is a very wicked, unsettling tale. Most notably with **SPOILER WARNING** the shift in plot that reveals Susie (gasp!) to be the true Mother Suspiriorum, Guadagnino’s Suspiria leaves an empty nook in the story bereft of any true, relatable human anchor. Enter Dr. Josef. He serves not only to focalize the plot and drive the story in a direction that doesn’t give way to full-blown chaos — as he pursues and investigates each nefarious deed echoing from the halls of the Helena Markos Dance Academy — but he lays a sincerity cushion for the, quite frankly, balls-out gory finale. He plods with a quiet earnestness towards truth, with noble intentions and frayed vulnerability, reaching for hope that his wife is alive somewhere (after disappearing amidst political scuffle). But what Klemperer brings as a character, is a presence that’s above all else, very human. The details of his backstory, and his connection to the Cold War, don’t bring any tangible revelations to the fore, but I’d like to imagine that Guadagnino is approaching Suspiria both with the intention to honor the source material, and ‘genre films’ in the horror canon generally, but also to emboss the film with at least a little bit of emotional candor. Given that it’s the successor to CMBYN in his filmography, its’ maybe not too wild a notion.
As for the backdrop of the Cold War, and the persistent mention of the “German Autumn” hostage situation in Berlin, I think there are few-to-no angles you could mine this story for meaning that would yield anything of substance to justify it as a new element. But then again, when thinking about Guadagnino’s approach, with his explicit, recurring theme of rebirths — bearing in mind “the inevitable pull that they exert, and our efforts to escape them” — in some abstract plane of thinking, a story set in the throes of the Cold War, with the dismantling of the USSR forthcoming and a non-Communist Eastern Europe emerging, isn’t exactly off-message. But that might be a stretch (so to speak [dance pun?]).
And in building an atmosphere, the looming presence of the War weaves a certain layer of tension into Suspiria. I’d liken it to a scene in Boogie Nights: Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his clumsy gang of cohorts are striking a deal with Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) to sell him (counterfeit, shhhhh) cocaine, in his very satin-sheets-and-open-robe valley bungalow. The whole scene harbors a heady haze of suspicion, that their illicit lark will be discovered. It’s a tense moment, as each character sweats, sways and stumbles along, addled by — we’re assuming — an inappropriate amount of drugs consumed prior to, while the audience waits for the other Hustle-tapping shoe to drop. But the detail that really seasons the scene is Jackson’s coterie of young, swarthy houseboys setting off firecrackers in the house with with indiscriminate abandon every 10-15 seconds. Each boom of the fireworks spurs a jump and a surge of adrenaline, and generally ratchets up that tension pretty palpably. It’s an innocuous creative choice, it bears no narrative consequence, but it sells that scene like a pair of Hamilton tickets. The presence of War in Suspiria is like those houseboys’ firecrackers. Its inclusion may be used superficially, but as an atmospheric devise, it’s not entirely unsuccessful. As a matte painting laid behind a dreary, bleak, rain-soaked witch movie, it works. The world of Suspiria is designed; it’s designed artistically, and it’s designed to have an effect.
And it’s not the story that anyone is returning to, with Suspiria. Nor, last I checked, is pioneer storytelling in horror films something critics or fans probe with any discriminating standard, ordinarily. Wes Craven’s Scream or John Carpenter’s Halloween are generally considered genre-defining moments in American Horror, and feature plots that couldn’t hold a stack of coins without tearing. Not quite an apples-to-apples comparison by any stretch, but what the horror genre generally strives for as a model for success is a story that’s visceral, powerful and emotive, in its presentation of some kind of “horror.” What Suspiria succeeds in, as Guadagnino has proven is his bread and butter, is collecting enough juicy artistic morsels and details to keep the viewer invested in the way the film makes them feel, and harbor that feeling long after the movie is over. It’s a torrent of ecstatic auteurism, a celebration of film for its uniquely filmic elements, a constellation of beautiful, shining fragments, a can of cinematic frosting that bears repeat viewings not for its revelatory narrative lore, but because it’s a weird, powerful romp that wears its passion for its own art form on its sleeve.
But what’s generally and most egregiously overlooked in Suspiria’s storytelling is its rendering of female relationships. However intentional or not-intentional it may have been, Guadagnino and David Kajganich (the film’s screenwriter) sketch a surprisingly examined portrait of women who, amidst the torture and deceit and bodily sacrifice that they’re all embroiled in, genuinely care for one another. In a movie with such a dauntless sense of brutality, where Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton) is responsible for maiming and disfiguring young women to offer as human hosts to an ancient witch Mother, there’s also a quiet tenderness. One of the most striking things about Blanc is that in the film’s finale, even in the throes of a ritualistic, archaic, sacrificial occult ceremony, where Susie’s body is about to be Get–Out-ed as a vessel for Mother Markos to ditch her strange baby-arm skin coat in favor of a young, supple new host, she is still bound to protecting Susie. She cautions her; she senses an unease, and she lurches to ensure Susie is ready for what she’s committed to sacrificing (herself). As it turns out, Susie then reveals herself to be the true witch mother, that Helena Markos is claiming to invoke, giving some context to the unease. But buried beneath the sordid witchcraft of Suspiria, there lies a compassion between women.
From the opening sequence, we hear Patricia’s stammered tales of viciousness that lie hidden in the academy, as told to Dr. Klemperer. But when we’re introduced to Madame Blanc as an instructor, she seams measured, fair, sensible, and nurturing. And as pernicious as her intentions ultimately become, grooming Susie as a bodily vessel, Swinton’s Madame Blanc endeavors with purpose, not with wickedness. While many other witches in the coven are inclined to cast niggling spells on inquisitive Detectives, as an excuse to play with their genitals uninterrupted, Blanc operates with quiet intention, to keep this collection of women in whatever ruling order binds them, and find a corporeal successor to their matriarch. When Olga, the defiant, outspoken dancer who decries the studio matrons — rather explicitly — as witches, under suspicion of Patricia’s recent disappearance, Madame Blanc without hesitation takes action to eliminate her — subjecting her to a horrifying bout of torture and disfigurement. But it’s the nuance in Swinton’s performance that keeps Blanc’s brand of evil leveled to a slow simmer – playing her as a woman acting out of necessity, never with the intent to be hateful. In this case, to protect her witchy community from exposure, terminating Olga becomes a necessity. And in the face of evil deeds, Swinton plays her with almost a reticent remorse. As the viewer sees Olga being broken and morphed into a human pretzel, they also see Madame Blanc, transfixed by Susie’s dancing, yes, but almost with stress, and remorse for what she knows is happening elsewhere.
With an almost-entirely female cast, there were plenty of opportunities by the filmmaker to take cheap routes portraying “evil” women, but Suspiria dances — so to speak — through its terrain beautifully. Even Susie, who avows herself as the much-talked-about Mother Suspiriorium, the “Mother of Sighs,” and the film’s namesake — albeit after her demon-summoning bloodbath — shows mercy towards the young woman unduly tortured by the coven. She asks what they desire, and when they say each inevitably say “death,” Susie offers them a swift end to their suffering.
Suspiria is a film that — at the risk of peppering in too many potential dance puns — strives to find a balance. Between the evil, gruesome, malevolent deeds on the page, and the humanity in acting and performance. And yes, the occasional conflation of style vs. substance. But, when dealing with a visual storyteller, honoring a source film that was always known for its tone and aesthetics, style and substance are often the same thing.