Film Review – Suspiria (2018)
When news the remake of Suspiria was actually going to happen for reals this time, much gnashing of teeth and wailing could be heard throughout the land. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But nobody I knew thought it was a good idea.) Firstly, everybody needs to start developing new ideas. Endless remakes, rehashes, reboots, and redos are clogging up our movie theaters and making me wanna stay home. (I complain about this in almost every review. Sorry if you’ve heard this before.) Secondly, WHY REMAKE SOMETHING THAT IS ALREADY REALLY GOOD. Why aren’t people taking crap properties and making their dream movies out of them??? (I personally would love a crack at Don Coscarelli’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. His version is okay, but I have a remake of this inside me that burns with a white-hot light. I would never want to redo Phantasm because it is perfect.) But director Luca Guadagnino doesn’t really care what I want (nor should he really) and went and made it anyway. While it does take the basic idea from Dario Argento’s original film, it is very much its own beast and deserves to be viewed as such, so I went into it anticipating the best. It is much better than I feared it would be, but much, much worse than I had hoped.
Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is in West Berlin in 1977 to audition for the Markos Dance Academy. Luckily for her, a place has opened up due to one of the dancers (Chloë Grace Moretz) having gone missing. But an empty spot is not a guarantee of acceptance, so it is fortuitous that Susie manages to impress Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) almost by accident during her audition. As she joins the troupe, it is revealed that the instructors are witches who use dance (among other things) to exert their will upon the world. (This is not a spoiler; it’s pretty obvious from the get go something hinky is going down at the Markos Academy.) Madame Blanc is vying with Helena Markos (also played by Tilda Swinton) for control of the coven, and Susie and her preternatural talents become the focal point of this power struggle. Concurrently, Dr. Josef Klemperer (again played by Swinton) is investigating the disappearance of the missing dancer, who was his patient. As he uncovers more about the academy, he begins to realize he might have been gravely mistaken in brushing aside her concerns about what went on there.
Had this been a 90 minute Grand Guignol splatter flick about Susie, her new friend Sara (Mia Goth), and their dealings with the Markos Academy witches, I would have bought completely in. But this is a 2 hour 32 minute art movie that thinks it has to be about something bigger. And as far as I can tell, Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich haven’t heard about subtext, because they keep piling things on top of the story, hoping something will resonate. But deep within this bloated mess, is the lean, super violent dream I really wanted to watch. (So much lovely gore.) Cut down to basics, the underlying story is a neat spin on the original that uses Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi’s story as a jumping off point for an alternate universe tale. But that’s not what I saw. I watched a movie with so many background details and subplots the film collapses beneath them.
* Susie is a Mennonite with no formal training. This has no bearing on the plot but takes up a nontrivial amount of screen time. Having Susie be a Mennonite is an unusual choice, and should be there for a reason, not just for exotic flavor. I kept waiting for it to matter somehow and it never did.
* The film emphasizes that it takes place while the Baader-Meinhof Group was active in Germany. The missing dancer Patricia is assumed to have left the dance company to join the revolution and throw bombs. This has no relation to the plot or any possible subtext and just feels like historical flavor run amok.
* There is a whole subplot about Dr. Klemperer who literally lost his wife during World War II and has always wondered what happened to her. Once again, this does not tie into the main story at all. It’s a side bar, and leads to an act of compassion in the epilogue (this film has an epilogue) that is completely unwarranted based on the rest of the film.
* If you are going to have one actor play three different roles, there should be a reason or you risk wandering into Eddie Murphy Klumps territory. I don’t see any reason here for Swinton to play more than one person. The three characters do not mirror each other in anyway, and just because Tilda Swinton is awesome doesn’t mean she needs to play every role.
*Neither film is particularly feminist – both involve middle-aged witches who destroy young women to further their agenda – but this film basically turns the school into a giant vagina dentata ready to chew up any person who enters. I’m not going to unpack that, but if you are looking for something that resonates in the #metoo era, it’s not here. (Filmmakers can make movies about whatever they want, but a film that is 98% female that says nothing about being a woman seems like it is missing an opportunity. It is possible the subtext here is that women are evil. It wouldn’t be the first film to accidentally communicate that.)
Yes, I just ragged on this film but honestly didn’t hate it, although I did get kind of bored through some of the interminable dance scenes. I appreciate the audacity of the violence and loved how the story both diverged and reflected the original film. I’m not really into Dakota Johnson, but she’s okay, and there are going to be people who love the baroque nature of the film’s presentation. If I had to pick one, I would go with the original (tighter, shockingly beautiful, and better music), but there’s no real reason to choose. In spite of all my complaints, there’s something interesting at the core of this, and if you are at all interested you should give it a shot.