This new Suspiria is a celebration of cinematic ambition.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria isn’t really a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic. Instead, it takes the mythology and set up of that film and unfurls in slower, sadder and subtler directions than the fast-paced, electric original. It stands toe-to-toe with the original in terms of quality, and surpasses it in ambition.
That mythology, which Argento also addressed in 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears, is that of the “three mothers” – Mater Lachrymarum, Mother of Tears; Mater Suspiriorum, Mother of Sighs; and Mater Tenebrarum, Mother of Darkness – the ancient, powerful witches who rule all other witches. This set-up finds American dancer Susie Bannion arriving at a dance studio in Berlin (moved from the original’s Freiburg), only to discover that the studio is actually run by a coven of witches. All of this is conjured from Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s original script, which itself was very loosely adapted the writings of 19th century essayist Thomas De Quincey.
Though certain plot beats are repeated, the major similarities between Argento’s and Guadagnino’s films basically end here. This is for the best, as Argento’s Suspiria represents the pinnacle of the giallo horror subgenre. Guadagnino replaces the original film’s elements with sadder, softer components: bright, lurid colors have been transmuted to greys, pinks and reds; the bombastic score is now haunting and melancholy; the violence, fast and shocking in the subgenre (Argento’s film featured the stabbing of a beating heart, among other horrors) is now slow and painful.
These changes work beyond merely distinguishing the film from its forebears. The screenplay – written by David Kajganich, who previously worked with Guadagnino on 2015’s A Bigger Splash – now places the action in 1977 Cold War Berlin. As Germany, and really the world, fights to simultaneously acknowledge and forget the past, the witches of the Markos Dance Academy are fighting about their own future. They are split into two factions: those who want to follow Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and those who are loyal to the ailing leader Helena Markos (also Swinton), who claims to be the powerful Mater Suspiriorum.
The new Suspiria has as much in common with the 2015 Robert Eggers’ feature The Witch—set win 17th century Puritan New England–as it does with Argento’s film. Both films take place in times of great fear, regret and division, but also of cautious hope, optimism and potential. Both feature horrific violence early on only to morph into something more thoughtful and subdued before reaching a shockingly bloody conclusion. Both examine witchcraft, which has looser parameters than popular film horrors like vampires and zombies. Witchcraft in these films is a horror unique to women, but also a conduit to great power that spits in the face of a society that has tried to weaken women.
This power is what drives Suspiria. Guadagnino puts power firmly in the hands of women in this film, and he takes this beyond the plot and into the actual casting. The lead male character, geriatric therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer, is played by Swinton (under the pseudonym Lutz Ebersdorf). As such, every major role in the film is played by a woman, even the film’s male lead. While Swinton turns in a fascinating and effective performance as Klemperer, an older male actor would probably have been more believable. However, by having a woman play the part, Guadagnino is staking a claim. This story doesn’t need men.
However, this leads to problems. Though Suspiria is a feminist tale and very woman-forward, some of this feminism rings false because of what’s going on beyond the scenes. After all, this is a film directed by a man from a script by a man, adapted from a film directed and co-written by a man, based on the work of a man. The majority of the film’s producers are men, as is the much of the production team. So, while women are well represented in front of the camera, and though much of the tale involves the power of women, the veins and skeleton are not feminist. Even the choreography, itself so focused on the female body and feminine motion, was designed by a man (Damien Jalet).
However problematic, the film succeeds in other areas. This new Suspiria is a celebration of cinematic ambition. The true thrills here come from the filmmaker’s bravery rather than horror. There are scares, for sure, but there are layers and layers of nuance, of puzzles, of mythology and of politics. The performances are immaculate, particularly Swinton’s turn as the strangely noble Madame Blanc and Dakota Johnson as the preternaturally talented but profoundly strange Susie. All of this is woven together into a functioning whole, but a whole that invites as twice as many questions as it answers. This will frustrate some, but will delight those who want their cinema to provoke rather than sate.
The differences between the new Suspiria and its inspiration are perhaps most profound in the muted, grey-and-pastel cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name) and a wonderfully unexpected, melancholy score by Thom Yorke. The original film was audacious but brief. The new version doesn’t wound as deeply, but the cuts it makes in the viewer’s psyche will burn and seethe long after the final credits roll.