Suspiria movie review: Dakota Johnson’s new horror film is weirder than Fifty Shades of Grey
Director - Luca Guadagnino
Cast - Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth
Rating - 3/5
Director Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, out on Amazon Prime Video, has so little to do with the original Dario Argento classic that it might as well drop the title and take its chances with a lawsuit. Argued well, I believe a jury can be convinced that the two films have nothing in common at all.
These differences are deliberate and often jarring - ranging from the decision to ignore the original’s lurid visual palette, to adding dense historical subtext. It’s no wonder, then, that Argento considers Guadagnino’s film to be a personal affront. “It did not excite me,” he said in a recent interview, and added that he felt ‘it betrayed the spirit of the original film’.
Watch the Suspiria trailer here
And it’s not difficult to understand why Argento was so offended. For starters, the new Suspiria isn’t a horror film at all, nor is it bothered in the slightest to appeal to a general audience. Guadagnino seems to be more interested in using the genre to make sweeping political statements rather than to scare - which makes sense, because Luca Guadagnino, director of Call Me by Your Name, is hardly a horror filmmaker.
That being said, Suspiria is - both visually and tonally - unlike anything he’s done in the past. Besides retaining the services of his lucky charm/muse, Tilda Swinton - she plays three roles in the film - and a his regular crew, Suspiria finds Guadagnino in a refreshingly bold artistic space of mind. Like his characters, he chooses to restrict himself more drastically than he ever has. Freedom - mental, physical, psychological - is a theme he’s addressed in previous films, and it plays an equally vital part in Suspiria, which is largely confined to claustrophobic spaces.
The film’s central character, in fact, finds herself in direct conflict with the idea of freedom, having grown up in a house where she had none. Dakota Johnson, who is quite the pro at playing ingenues, stars as Susie. She’s a young Mennonite from Ohio, who discards her repressed old life in favour of the artistic liberty offered by Madame Blanc’s famed dance academy in Berlin, which, it is revealed early on in the film, is a front for a coven of witches.
It is implied that Susie suffered some form of abuse at the hands of her mother, who is curiously only ever seen on her deathbed. Madame Blanc in many ways assumes the role of a foster parent, giving Susie the emotional support that she longs for, as she leaves everyone at the academy astounded by her blazing talent.
Motherhood is another strong recurring theme, and despite a longish length of two-and-a-half hours, the film has time only for one major speaking role for a man. And even that is played by a woman.
This subversive streak continues in Guadagnino’s pointed political commentary. He sets his Suspiria at a very particular period in history - the complex German Autumn of 1977, when a faction of the radical left, very clearly overcompensating for the sins of their parents, decided to wipe out the last remnants of the Nazi party, in a city that was quite literally divided at the time. This fact-based plot plays out in the background, through TV reports and stray newspaper clippings, as it did in the Brad Pitt film Killing Them Softly, which used the Great Recession and the American Presidential election of 2008 as a terrific backdrop for its ideas.
On the surface, one might wonder why such a seemingly disconnected subplot even exists - removing it entirely could have shaved off an hour of runtime, and perhaps made Suspiria a more palatable experience.
But the idea of generational guilt is quite integral to the story Guadagnino is telling. For instance, the central dance that the young girls at the academy are trying to master was first created in 1948, in the shadow of the war. And the witches themselves seem to be of a rather complacent nature, having distanced themselves from their coven’s past - this offers a nice contrast to the Baader-Meinhof Group, who were desperately clinging onto the previous generation’s sins to justify to their own. There are some distressingly nihilistic ideas at play here - Guadagnino seems to be worried that we didn’t learn from our mistakes, and the way we’re headed, we’re likely to make them again.
One of Argento’s chief criticisms of the film was that ‘there is no music’. This is categorically untrue. In fact, Thom Yorke’s dizzyingly atmospheric ‘score’ is one of the film’s highlights. It’s almost as if Guadagnino tasked the famous rockstar with coming up with a Suspiria-themed concept album, and spliced it into the movie. Some of the most haunting images in it - particularly towards the end - work mostly because of Yorke’s music and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s desaturated visuals.
The new Suspiria is about as much fun as being assigned to write a dissertation on the original film - which makes sense, because that’s what it is.