That rating isn’t a typo. Sometimes, I know what I’ll rate a film the second I begin writing a review. Other times, when I begin writing, I won’t know what the rating is. Instead, I’ll decide it once I’ve put down all my thoughts. But every once in a while, I’ll begin writing with a score written down, and as I’m writing, the score will progressively tick up (the last time this happened was with Blade Runner 2049). When this occurs, as I’m writing, I discover what I love about the film, what I underappreciated, what I completely missed. It’s rare, but it does happen, and it occurred with director Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria.
For the purposes of this review, I’m going to begin each section with a rating. This will serve as a charting of how my thoughts evolved.
If you’ve watched Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), just know that Guadagnino’s is entirely different. Though the film still revolves around an American girl who’s enrolled in a prestigious German dance school, in this iteration, those original precepts and the story are expanded.
Guadagnino’s film opens quite differently from Argento’s, as well. Here, a rain soaked dancer enters into Dr. Joseph Klemperer’s (Tilda Swinton) office. The psychotic dancer offers ramblings about her former dance school. Much of it, to the doctor, comes as a sign of paranoia, a psychotic break. It’s a risky and jarring beginning to a film, especially a remake. The frenetic introduction is only soothed by Thom Yorke’s piano waltz-timed theme, “Suspirium.” Yorke’s music is a film highlight, and if not for A Star is Born, he’d probably be more seriously considered for an Oscar win this year.
The film doesn’t feel familiar until Susie (Dakota Johnson), a girl from Ohio, arrives at the Tanz Dance Academy. Susie is a dancing prodigy, who soon draws the interest of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Blanc, one of the heads of the coven and school, is looking for a new star pupil. The previous one fled, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), she’s the one we meet in Klemperer’s office, while the other, Olga (Elena Fokina), is in the process of fleeing but, in a locked dance studio, is contorted and crushed like a pretzel.
The witches, specifically Madame Blanc, are grooming the best of these dancers to sustain the life force of the still “living” Helena Markos. Markos, the real leader of the dance school and coven is a decrepit near-death parasite who’s lived for hundreds of years. The grooming includes feeding the girls with nightmares, much of them grisly, such as the mutilation of female bodies. Suspiria is a muted and gray film, as we inhabit rainy 1970’s Germany. When these nightmares come to Susie, they’re made all the more shocking because they diverge from what’s previously been on the screen.
If Suspiria were only centered around the dance school and Susie, it would be exceptional. However, the script written by David Kajganich (who collaborated with Guadagnino on The Bigger Splash) overindulges his screenplay. 1970’s Germany was still recovering from the war, still contending with its past Nazism. Kajganich wants to bring these elements into the film, and maybe it would work if it didn’t require half the run time. Dr. Joseph Klemperer, while amazingly performed by a well make-uped Swinton, never fully connects with the film. In fact, Suspiria goes out of its way to accommodate the character.
While there are connections to be made between the witches and the reliance on the occult by the Nazis, Klemperer as a representation of the Nazi regime, and the mistakes caused by intellectuals, such as himself, acquiescing to them, they’re too numerous here. In turn, Klemperer spends much of the film searching for Patricia. The search for Patricia mirrors the disappearance of his wife during war and is a way for him to atone. Still, even this mirroring isn’t sufficient reason to include his arc in an already elongated story (the film is comprised of six acts and an epilogue).
Suspriria is far more compelling exploring the dark mysteries of the dance school, the feminist turns they take, and how magic and witchcraft serves as a female empowerment. Throughout the film, men are only objects to be mocked. They’re fools. And when considering that men ruled the Nazi party, men drove the country into turmoil, causing its decay, then its simple to see why they would be. Though evil, the precepts of the dance school are in opposition to Nazism, the Third Reich who demanded that women “close their minds and keep their uteruses open.”
The women at Suspiria‘s center were never going to be the Good Witches of the South, more like the Evil Witches of the East. Still, Guadagnino takes what was essentially an excessive phantasmagorical gore fest and gives it a definition and political taste that it lacked. The witches’ dubious intentions should not be confused with their empowerment. Female characters do not have to be wholly angels, if they are complex and well-written (as with any other character).
Guadagnino’s film asks large questions, rarely resolving any. Some of them fall flat, some pull us downward into their philosophical or historical allusions. And when we finally enter into the film’s “final” act, when this 152-minute film turns into a blood and gore fest, when the muted colors of drizzling Germany fade into the bleached red dungeon of the Tanz Dance School, we’re left not knowing whether Suspiria is good or bad. What we do know, is that we have to see it again, we have to unlock every movement of the film’s dance choreography, pick apart the clues of Klemperer’s wife’s disappearance, and recount Susie’s dreams. We know that Suspiria is a statement and a question, at once. And, for me, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Final rating; 3.5/4