‘Suspiria’ Review: A Masterpiece Is Reborn
There is a moment early in Suspiria when Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc ruminates on the concept of rebirths and “the inevitable pull they exert and our efforts to escape them.” Blanc uses this description in the context of Volk, a stunning dance production born from the harrowing World War II era of Berlin, but it’s also an apt way to describe Luca Guadagnino’s interpretation of Dario Argento’s stylish horror classic — it’s not a remake, but a rebirth or reincarnation, in which Argento’s old ways are forced to reconcile with Guadagnino’s new.
Presented in six acts and an epilogue, Suspiria is as much about its 1977 Berlin setting as it is about the art — and guilt, and shame, and pain — that emerged from an era informed by the devastation that preceded it. In a Berlin divided by the wall, as Baader and Meinhof sought to reclaim the history of Germany, a young midwestern woman named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a world-renowned dance company embroiled in its own division between the old ways and the new. Unlike Argento’s Suspiria, Guadagnino makes it plain from the outset that this dance company is controlled by a coven of witches.
The central mystery of Argento’s film isn’t the only thing that Guadagnino eschews; his style is in some ways the antithesis of the old Suspiria. Gone are the garish, neon colors, re-contextualized here only during the film’s exceedingly gnarly climax. And context (or re-contextualization) is far more important to Guadagnino’s telling. When Madame Blanc (Swinton serving a perfect Pina Bausch) begins to explain the meaning of Volk — the dance she created during World War II — Guadagnino cuts away to another scene. He is not interested in explaining the art, but in giving us the context that informs our understanding of it.
Suspiria opens with Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz in a small but pivotal role) visiting the office of Dr. Josef Klemperer, a German psychoanalyst who chalks her ramblings about witches and rituals up to paranoid delusions. Klemperer is very clearly a stand-in for the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, but he also embodies one of the many archetypes which Jung believed informed every individual’s psyche — here it is the “wise old man,” though it’s crucial to note that Swinton is also playing the role of Klemperer for the majority of the film. Still, those archetypes, and in particular the four that Jung found most important — rebirth, mother, spirit, trickster — are as integral to Guadagnino’s structure as the division among the coven, or the survivor’s guilt that informs Klemperer’s fascination with his female patients.
On a very basic level, Suspiria is a stunningly-crafted film with remarkable performances from Swinton, Mia Goth, and Dakota Johnson — the latter of whom won’t surprise you in the slightest if you’re familiar with Guadagnino’s prior collaboration with Swinton and screenwriter David Kagjanich on A Bigger Splash. But Suspiria is also willfully divisive, and its understated color palette is merely the antithetical surface of its many rebellions against form — whether by re-contextualizing Argento’s heavily-visual work as a thematically-dense exercise, or by deconstructing cinematic and psychiatric archetypes.
If this sounds a bit heavy, that’s because Suspiria is an incredibly heavy film, though Guadagnino brings each and every thematic layer together masterfully, with the same jarring grace that’s on display in Susie’s feral physicality. For as much as this Suspiria is stylistically divested from its predecessor, it’s still quite referential; Guadagnino essentially adapts or pays homage to Argento‘s entire Mother of Tears trilogy, incorporating the mythos of the three mothers (darkness, tears, and sighs) in such a way as to underscore the growing division within the coven between Blanc and the reclusive Mother Markos (also Swinton, by the way) before all hell breaks loose in a violently abrasive finale.
It would be too neat and reductive to sum Suspiria up as a divisive film about division, and though it is certainly that, it is also incredibly feminist. Since Swinton is also playing Kemperer, the only men with speaking roles are a pair of largely useless detectives who are barely in the film except to be ridiculed by a few of the women. It’s almost too easy to dismiss Kemperer’s arc as that of a man co-opting or commandeering a woman’s narrative, but its intention is entirely the opposite. Kemperer carries survivor’s guilt from sending his wife away during World War II, and he tries to absolve himself of that burden through psychoanalyzing away the very real pain that his female patients experience — but which often goes unseen. It’s as if a woman’s trauma isn’t believable unless it is made wholly apparent through literal violence with a credible witness, such as an old white man; the same type of man who has essentially dictated the worth of women, art and commerce for far too long.
Or, as Madam Vendegast explains after briefly indulging his fantasies of absolution, “Women tell you the truth and you tell them they’re delusional” — which is why Kemperer is chosen to play the role of “witness” to the film’s gnarly, ritualistic climax. Here, all of the internalized trauma visited upon Patricia and Sara (Goth) — and every other youthful, talented woman exploited for Markos’ increasingly questionable artistic vision — is externalized in a brutal Grand Guignol destined, if not designed, to alienate most viewers.
It is impossible to discuss the rapturous, experiential masterpiece that is Guadagnino’s Suspiria without dedicating this much space to its thematic density. It’s not a film one considers, but excavates, continually finding additional symbols and meaning within the deceptively simple setting. Suspiria is a theatre of pain and ugliness in which a woman such as Susie can and does come into her power. It is horrible. It is breathtaking. It is, to paraphrase Susie, she.