Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria (2018)

Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references

Score: 4 out of 5

Remaking Suspiria should have been a fool's errand. Without putting too fine a point on it, the original film is a horror masterpiece, the one that immediately comes to mind when Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento's name comes up in American conversation. So much of it is dependent on the style that Argento brings to the table, from the visuals to the color palette to the score to the framing of the characters, that it's hard to even conceive of what it would look like with a different director at the helm. Furthermore, a remake has been in the works for a decade now, with David Gordon Green attached to direct at one point and at least one producer talking about updating the setting to a hip-hop dance school. If there was ever a movie that should've been a complete, unmitigated disaster, it's a remake of Suspiria.

And yet, leave it to Luca Guadagnino to pull it off. His version of Suspiria is undoubtedly weaker than Argento's, to be sure, his attempts to focus on the story and give more depth and subtext to it producing mixed results. But what I thought would be the remake's greatest weakness, the lack of a legendary visual artist like Argento at the helm, actually turned out to be its secret weapon. Guadagnino's film takes the opposite tack that Argento's did, going out of its way to avoid imitating his style in favor of a bleak, gritty hyper-realism that leans heavily on the context of its '70s West German setting. I'm not yet sure how much he really added to the film, but the new version of Suspiria remains a very good and daring film that nobody will mistake for a pale imitation of the original.

Once again, the story revolves around an American girl named Susie Bannion who, in 1977, heads to Germany to attend an elite dance academy, only to find out that it's run by a coven of witches who are preying on the students. This time, the school is not in Freiburg but in West Berlin, an island of freedom in the Eastern bloc whose most famous landmark was the symbol of Soviet oppression that encircled it to keep East Germany's best and brightest from defecting, which the Markos Dance Academy sits right across the street from. 1977 was the year of the German Autumn, when far-left radicals launched a series of notorious terrorist attacks. And so when Patricia, a student at the academy who ran away out of fear for her life, "disappears" (actually being spirited away by the witches), the cover story is that she ran off to join the people calling for the West German government to "free Baader and Meinhof". At the academy, Susie befriends a girl named Sara, who is convinced that something is afoot and that the faculty knows what happened to Patricia, especially after Olga, another girl who mouthed off to the teachers before running off, disappeared under similar circumstances. All the while, Josef Klemperer, a psychotherapist who was the last person to see Patricia alive, starts his own investigation into the academy.

The decision to keep the film set in the '70s was no accident, nor was it just done in homage to the original; if it were, then Guadagnino would've likely aped Argento's style far more directly. Instead, the film's worldview is deeply rooted in its exploration of the time period, in particular Germany's fraught relationship with the Second World War and the sense of national guilt that had emerged from it. Klemperer's guilt over losing his wife, who disappeared during the war, forms a key part of the film's central arc, especially as it relates to the abuses committed by the staff at the academy. To go into too much detail would mean getting into spoilers; even if you've seen the original, this film diverges heavily from it, using the same basic premise but turning into a whole different beast towards the end. It's difficult to say just how well it worked, especially given that my interpretation of the ending wound up being different in some noticeable ways from what other people read into it. This is very much an art film that runs heavily on metaphor and not letting the audience know exactly what is going on, not a movie you can just sit down and watch for two-and-a-half hours and figure out immediately. No matter how you look at it, it's a film where your first viewing is not going to give you the whole story. I'm sure that, watching it again, I'd notice a whole slew of things that I'd missed, knowing the twists in advance and seeing how the story and themes are put together.

But even on a first-time viewing, taken on its merits as a horror movie, this film certainly gets the job done. This is not a typical "Hollywood-style" horror remake; Guadagnino is working very much in the mold of many modern arthouse horror films like Hereditary, It Follows, and The Witch, adding to it a distinctly European flair. Long, static shots that show off the entire room and the characters within, interspersed with a few well-placed quick cuts, give this film the feel of a '70s horror movie in addition to the period setting, letting us know early on that some serious shit is going down (most notably with one of the most creative and brutal kills I've ever seen in a horror film) but otherwise slowly building to its outrageously violent finish. Thom Yorke of Radiohead makes his debut as a film composer, and his soundtrack lends the film the sort of eerie, off-putting quality that is a hallmark of Radiohead's best music. Out of the cast, Tilda Swinton once more proves why she is an acting legend by playing both the evil headmistress Madame Blanc and (under heavy makeup as "Lutz Ebersdorf") the male Dr. Klemperer, the latter deliberately cast with a female actress to lend to the film's themes of female power being corrupted; save for Klemperer, the only men in the film come in bit roles. Mia Goth also does a great job as Sara, the character who, in a more conventional version of this story, might've been the final girl, the plucky young woman seeking to uncover the truth about the school. Chloë Grace Moretz, too, impresses in a small but ultimately quite important role as Patricia, the girl whose disappearance kicks the events of the film into motion. Finally, Dakota Johnson earns my forgiveness for the Fifty Shades films by delivering a performance far more daring than the lightweight "edginess" of that series, taking Susie to some truly dark and harrowing places.

Of special note is how, unlike the original film, this one places a much heavier focus on the fact that the story is specifically set at a dance academy. You could probably set Argento's version in a normal elite boarding school, and not lose a whole lot in the translation. Guadagnino, on the other hand, works the characters' dancing into most of this film's biggest set pieces, whether they're practicing with their teachers or putting on performances. Johnson and Goth both had to learn how to dance for this movie, and watching them, you'd never guess that they weren't trained professional dancers like the people playing the other students. The women are often clad in revealing, form-fitting dance wear, but the focus is on the sheer athleticism of it, less on their T&A (even when they all get naked during the climax) and more on the fact that they are all in peak physical shape. It makes perfect sense given how so much of the storytelling here is visual rather than verbal; dance is one of the oldest forms of visual storytelling, and Guadagnino embraces it wholeheartedly for a film that is as much driven by its aesthetic as Argento's version was.

The Bottom Line

This movie is not for everybody. For those looking for a simple, straightforward movie, beware: you will be confused by the ending, and I honestly think that the script may have bitten off more than it could chew. But when taken on the whole, this film is as much a feast as the original, even if Guadagnino and Argento's styles are virtually night and day.

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