Disclaimer: I have NOT seen the Dario Argento original purported masterpiece. Italian Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 update of Argento’s surrealist nightmare is an unwieldy, ambitious monstrosity, much like the infamous Mother Markos when we finally get a full look-see at her in the back half of this fascinating but bloated film. Utilizing makeup, prosthetics, and a wildly morbid and campy performance from an enigmatic actor known as Lutz Ebersdorf (Google the secret if you know not whom I speak of), Mother Markos is a distillation of Guadagnino’s efforts here, a perfect metaphor for his flirtation with greatness and silliness in equal measure, not to mention a bevy of failed themes, and other high-falutin’ choices.
As dense as it is, Suspiria is deceptively simple: a coven of witches run a wicked dance studio where they mold and manipulate their talented students to whatever will they please, often in deference to an ancient witch for whom they serve. Dakota Johnson’s Susie is a shy, troubled ingenue from Ohio with big ideas and bigger potential. Upon her unexpected and inspiring audition, headmistress Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) is immediately enraptured by this new kid on the bloc. Johnson, her hair a fiery orange, her physique very lithe, her moves almost lethal, is a physical presence on the dance floor, able to conjure intensity and carnality out of thin air. While her other skills may be yet fully developed, her ability to inhabit another person’s body, the way they move, the way they inhabit a scene is pretty astonishing. Swinton, for her part, is both playing herself and playing against type, as much as she has a “type” anyway. In Madame Blanc, she’s full of wisdom and quiet malice, both a party to the brutal politik of their spellbinding mission and in opposition to the extreme measures of their fearless leader Markos, recently re-elected by majority vote to stand charge of their coven.
Weak parallels insist between that inner turmoil of the studio and the actual brutal politik in West Berlin in 1977, the aftermath of a German political reckoning decades in the making. Guadagnino is often reaching for a greater purpose behind the Grand Guignol plot and failing to make his point, cogently anyway. Whether it’s mother and daughter, professor and pupil, or threading the needle between past atrocity and present calamity, the Italian filmmaker isn’t up to the task of fielding thematic questions, with one exception. Among such intrigue are grace notes on the good and evil of feminine notions of collectivism versus masculine carnality and individuality. Basically, these women have cordoned off a small block for free living and free sharing in the name of art, all while surrounded by a cultural and societal civil war led by ineffectual men, many of whom live failing to solve crimes and stop bombings. For all their obtuse imagining, Luca and screenwriter David Kajganich have something to say, which is more than can be said for most of horror, or all of entertainment for that matter.
Thanks to an ethereal score by singer-songwriter Thom Yorke and fast-twitch editing by Walter Fasano, Suspiria is more entertaining than its two and a half hour runtime would indicate, punctuated by virtuoso dances and vigorous dreams. The latter is Luca’s sole claim to scary movie capability, Susie’s nightmares a visceral series of disturbing and unnerving images serving up the film’s only mode of traditional scares. The former is a filmmaker’s delight, an opportunity for deep-focus wide angles and furious cutting, one Guadagnino doesn’t pass up. One dance in particular frames the most gruesome scene, a lengthy endeavor of stunning body horror and tenacious makeup work as Susie’s performance has a sickening effect on one of her peers. Swinton and Johnson, no matter their role, are always fun to see, to enjoy them slinking and blinking at the world around them as if it were alien to them. The same goes for Mia Goth, a mostly unheralded actress with natural charisma and a peculiar sort of beauty that never stops short of captivating. Like in Gore Verbinski’s underrated Cure For Wellness she prompts rapt attention when the story veers off course.
And the story veers off course. Be it the slow-moving side plot of an old man on the coven’s trail or a neon-red sabbath, a would-be climax meant to be cathartic and instead drowns in a sea of blood and camp, the film is subtle in style until it’s not. Luca Guadagnino is good at subtle but he’s not good at high camp, a tightrope of performance and tone notoriously difficult to pull off. From garish makeup on Mother Markos and godawful CGI taped over great makeup on poor Dakota to poorly judged use of slow motion fakery and green screen, there’s just too much silliness to bear in such an important scene. Suspiria is a high recommend for art film aficionados with a hankering for something that borders on delicious, and a low recommend for anyone else looking for a good scare or good message.