Luca Guadagnino’s deliberately polarizing 2018 Suspiria shows its utmost respect for the original 1977 Suspiria by Dario Argento by making an absolute travesty of it: rethinking it, stripping it for parts, inverting its essence while honoring its spirit. And then defiling even that. The original Suspiria was a thoroughly abstract mindscape, with horror as an associative framework for arranging sound, sight, and sense to tap into otherwise untouchable enigmas about “humanity” conceived broadly. Nominally, this new Suspiria is totally at odd angles to Argento’s film, as thoroughly opposed as, say, Stephen King’s psychological vision of The Shining was from Kubrick’s baroque weave of sensory experiences that only superficially correspond to questions about the main character’s sanity.
This new Suspiria is both narrower and more expansive than the original. On one hand, it is thoroughly and inextricably a story about a time and a place (while the original could have taken place at any point in the past few hundred years). Yet it also breathes outward, distending itself well beyond a simple narrative and a set of events, letting the bruises of trying to wrangle all of its disparate threads show as it reaches well beyond the story it has set up for itself. On one hand, it is far more grounded in the particularities of time and space than the original film, yet unlike most historical films, it uses its period setting as an incantatory grounding for its own cinematic demiurgical art: the film uses the external surfaces of our world – plot details, images, events – to conjure hidden undercurrents of truth and dark presentiments about a tainted experience we call “modernity”.
Dedicated to throwing meat onto the bones of the original’s “dance academy run by witches” situation, which was more a scenario than a story proper, Guadagnino’s take is explicitly set in East Germany in 1977. This Suspiria is emphatically drawn to the look and feel of that particular world and oriented toward the political and social quandaries which seem to effuse out of that time and place. It begins with one student, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), running away from the Tanz Dance Academy and sharing cryptic, elliptical reflections on it and its headteacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) with a psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (about which there is some instability in the casting, although I’ll say no more). This also prompts the academy to accept another American student, Ohio Mennonite Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson), to take her place.
But David Kajganich’s screenplay seeps into a whole social milieu totally foreign to the original’s cloistered location and demonic divinations. The Baader Meinhof Group’s historically-freighted kidnapping and the hijacking of the Lufthansa plane Landshut are the most overt historical signposts, but there are many allusions to European modernity in this film, the ghostly after-image of World War II and Europe’s failure to reckon with its own demons, in particular, hovering over every shot and filling every crevice of the more personal story notionally at the film’s center. Comingling the geopolitical strife of modernity’s unmet expectations and the minor tragedies of a woman’s past (and that’s just for starters), this Suspiria is transparently about the simultaneity of past, present, and future in many forms, both political and personal.
Thus, Dr. Klemperer was involved with the Nazis, and clearly seeks to atone for his sins, to make peace with his past. Likewise, the witch coven’s actions are explicitly if cryptically figured as a feminist retort to the Nazis who wished to colonize the occult as a tool for phallic masculine mastery predicated on the attainment (and retainment) of a “divine” image of Aryan achievement. In contrast to that image of time as a telos marching forever forward, the Tanz Academy offers past and present as a more fluid, porous liquidity. Thus, ballet is figuratively positioned as at once procreative (ensuring the future) – implicitly sexual, owing to the orgasmic gesticulations and moans of the women performing – matricidal (devouring but having to react to, and thus being unable to truly escape from, the past) – insofar as Susie is figuratively escaping from but also beholden to a mirror image of her ailing mother in America – and an attempt to achieve immortality (stalling time itself) – insofar as the witches are waging a battle to find the dancer who might be able to grant immortality to their current headmistress.
If some of these also seem to imply, like the Nazis (and like capitalist time-forms), a mastery of time itself, this is not lost on the film, which poses that the witches are also complicit with the desire to control darker forces that disrupt linear time. Which is where the “horror” comes in: the witches aspire to wield dance for their purposes, but even they cannot control the unstable notion of time they play with. They bend the rules of rationality but assume they can control the contours of this bending. If they wish to master time as well, the film suggests – and formally embodies – not mastery over time so much as an ambiguous portal between times, meditating on the various ways in which people and places can’t quite separate past, present, and future.
Formally, Guadagnino takes Argento’s original tour-de-force of poetic viscera, violated bodies, and operatic excess and simmers it all the way down. This new film is as primarily aesthetic as Argento’s film was, but the remake’s cold, intensely alienating style might be the diametric opposite of Argento’s flaring, emotionally-intuitive bursts of radiant, rapturous color. Argento’s film draws from classical opera and its sense-forward orientation toward bodies as vessels for extreme, unfettered emotions passing through them momentarily, rather than as assemblages of physical and psychological “features” that we coalesce into “characters”. Guadignino takes from more distinctly modernist art forms, especially psychological ones, giving us “characters” and “individuals” rather than puppets for cinematographic painting in a wider, cosmic canvas populated by human-like figures who seem to have no sovereign self.
But his aesthetic style here is also wholly opposed to Argento’s. The look this time is curdled, cryptic, and icy, influenced by materialist Soviet architecture and, to name a cinematic forebear, the frigid sensuality of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an equal of Argento’s from the same era but perhaps his aesthetic opposite. (In fact, what Guadignino does with Argento is more akin to Fassbinder’s icy reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows with his own Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Guadignino is certainly an auteur, so his hesitance about acquiescing to another director’s aesthetic is certainly understandable. But the biggest surprise is that this Suspiria isn’t even Guadignino’s own signature style, which is much more typically classical than his extremely angular work here.
And although the film’s characters do have personalities this time out, the film’s style also thematizes the struggle to maintain those personalities, to believe that one truly has sovereignty over the self. The dance style, in particular, is defiantly modernist this time out, all flagellating bodies and angular contortions which formalize the idea of uncertainty about one’s control over one’s own body, as though each limb is acting on its own accord, puppeteered by an unknown force and only able to move to pre-sedimented places, like points of articulation on an action figure which also become axioms around which modernity (and its concerns about personal consciousness) seem to turn.
This dance style is a big clue-in to the film’s concerns. The 2018 Suspiria doubles down on the notion of bodies realizing they are predestined as conduits for cosmic figurations and demonic entities, people who are helpless to resist their predetermined place in an unknown relationship playing out just beyond (and behind) the eyes. Its first gruesome set-piece explicitly literalizes this theme, as do the costumes the dancers’ wear in a later performance – thick red ropes knotted around their body, at once loose enough for them to escape and tight enough that it would require obvious effort – evoking an interrelationship between the strictures that bind and the resistant human forces which aspire to escape but may only become more entangled still. Likewise, Thom Yorke scrubs out Goblin’s demonic disco (the soundtrack to the original) but maintains a barely-audible phalanx of whispers and sighs, like a Greek Chorus desperately trying to comment on the meaning behind the story, only to find their voices mangled and drowned in aural morass, as though they cannot quite make their interests interpretable at the layer of formal meaning.
All of these stylistic features, again, evoke a central, organizing concern about one’s ability, or lack thereof, to escape the confines of the past, and whether this escape, as for Dr. Klemperer, is simply a refusal to acknowledge the vise-grip of that past on the present. In this way, actually, Suspiria bears imaginative affinities with Guadignino’s earlier films, even though its look is a world apart. In Call Me By Your Name, the director excavated submerged centuries-old statues as symbolic counterpoints for his characters’ unspoken feelings. Those characters were both entombed in their emotions (and hindered by past and present norms about sexuality, unable to escape the weight of history) and thoroughly impassioned to defy the past, to speak their submerged emotions and discover truths beyond the surface. Suspiria similarly places its present in bas-relief to a past that also digs into that present, treating history as a series of dispatches from forgotten worlds and times that are never truly lost, that always prey on and provide possibilities for various alternative presents. Although more frigid, this film is also fertile, and fecund, exploring the remnants of the past as they seep into the present, presumed loss and absence revealing tragic, often malevolent presence.
For this reason, Suspiria can often feel premeditated, often programmatic, as though its occult figurations are slightly over-calculated to address as many political, social, and intellectual themes as possible, manicured and mannered to the point of stringent intellectual calculation. Which is to say, absent the bedeviling, almost pre-intellectual charge of the original Suspiria. Ultimately, Suspiria meditates on the tensions between art and magic – both calling on the past and in various ways conditioned on, limited by, and disfiguring toward those pasts – for resisting the rationalist status quo of post-war European society, so skeptical of old ways and anything resembling the occult. And it is perhaps for this reason that the film cannot succeed without absolutely breaking itself. In its phenomenal, and phenomenally troubling conclusion, the film also holds its own feet to the fire, upending and possibly devouring its own rationalist (cold, managed, thematic, psychological) inversion of the original film’s more intuitive, libidinal energies. This highly divisive finale offers a psychokinetic explosion of near-pure cinema in a largely affective register, a return-of-the-repressed original film that formally embodies the film’s very themes of trying to escape or transcend the past and discovering how impossible it may truly be.
In several ways, this Suspiria is hyper-modern in its emphases: its understanding of space is local, empirical, and temporal, not universal or idealist, and its characters are defined by individual psychologies rather than as vessels for ideas or vitalist forces. But this incantatory conclusion, initially hallucinatory, also asks to what extent our own vision of rational modernity is a hallucination, a willful blindness to the inexplicable that lingers beneath and travels underfoot. The film, in other words, asks what it means that the film, itself, conforms to the common belief that the more “intelligent” film is the one that more overtly tackles political and social issues at the level of text, classifying them as themes at the level of narrative, rather than admitting potentially ungovernable energies that might totally disown that attempt to intellectualize cinema.
While this Suspiria is deliberately restrained on the whole, the finale is campily, cosmically uncontained, a demonic rupture in the film’s aesthetic that visualizes the film’s self-critique of its own hubris, questioning how the film, like the characters, thought it could play with history whilst containing it in a “logical” narrative form. This final undigested orgy of blood and viscera is a demiurgic fabulation that absolutely has its way with the film. If the film’s Bauhaus architecture and neutralized colors so elegantly dismember the memory of the original Suspiria, the film concludes with the orgiastic resurgence of that film’s repressed spirit, the past unbuttoned and unfastened in its suggestion that older forms prey on us still, and that ostensibly newer ones may not necessarily be better. In dealing with the memory of World War II, Suspiria ends up opening a portal for perhaps antediluvian pasts that rush it into, and which it cannot contain.
What the film does in this final act is form-alize, in its style, the political quandary the witches represent at the level of content. This Suspiria deeply politicizes the intramural aspects of these witch coven, framing the coven as a legitimate and radical assault on a masculine culture thoroughly content to scrub out the possibility of feminine resistance. Blanc, for instance, frames one big dance production as a riot of contorted bodies attempting to reckon with both the changes in recent European history and the much longer denial of women in the continent’s history. That said, the coven is also an institution that is no less intrinsically liberated from those oppressive forms and no less beholden to tyrannical holds by unquestioned, dictatorial figures. In their channeling of the spiritual, the mystical, and the irrational toward a specific purpose, they can’t but rationalize them. Thus, the film concludes with an apocalyptic aria that suggests that, while this emotionally-expressive, communal coven may propose a defiant alternative to the cruelly cold, insular, individualistic world of masculine rationality outside, it cannot fully erase the forms that contaminate the coven as well.
This conclusion is an act of utmost self-resistance, gruesomely vandalizing the rest of the film, yet the prior material seems to lead it with grim foreknowledge. At times, Suspiria seems wholly liberated from the pull of its own past, the original film, in its total willingness to defile Argento’s original impulses. At others, the spirit of the original seems to push the film to break so radically from the originary incantation that released it and which it cannot but speak to. As though the anxiety of replicating its forebear is too much to bear, the film must lash out in any other possible direction. Perhaps that is to the film’s credit. After all, should not a film about destructive attempts to escape history display the fault lines of wrestling with its own past, a past – the itch of the original film – that threatens to rip its attempts to break from it apart? In Suspiria, the past is both ever-present and unquantifiable, and the film’s fascination is that it renders this not only at the level of narrative and thematic content but embodied form.
In rummaging through the debris of the past without being able to escape it, Suspiria theorizes the relationship between trauma, temporality, and the unknown, bristling with submerged, maddened energy in its attempt to exorcise the demons of Europe’s past. Fittingly, the film’s vision of liberating escape from the past, the original film, becomes a portrait of literal (if local) apocalypse and abyssal abjection, an indecipherable and interminable cinematic object which cannot be confined to easy analysis. There is never a moment in the film where we are not aware that the monumental weight of history lies on its shoulders, damn near breaking its neck in the process. Thus, this cinematic weave is fascinatingly undone by a possessive relationship with its own past (the past film’s grip on this film even, and because of, its nominal difference from that past film), a relationship that renders the present film, appropriately, a truly stricken mass of cinematic cartilage, bones, and flesh on the floor daring us to put it back together again.