Tuesday 23 October 2018

Film Review: Suspiria (dir. Guadagnino, 2018)

From the Senso-referencing illicit romance of I Am Love (2009) to the enjoyably gaudy La Piscine remake A Bigger Splash (2015) there's no denying that Luca Guadagnino is a filmmaker who displays his Eurocentric cinephilia proudly in his work. The critical (over-)acclaim for Guadagnino's last feature, Call Me By Your Name (2017), must have emboldened him further, for with his new film, Suspiria, Guadagnino turns to his compatriot Dario Argento's giallo classic to fashion his most decadent piece of Euro art/trash yet.

Suspiria announces itself as no mere "remake" of Argento's film; rather, Guadagnino styles it "a cover version." At 2 hours 30 minutes, the film is almost an hour longer than its source, and often feels like an elaborately-orchestrated tone poem on selected aspects of the original, with a number of Guadagnino's own socio-political and historical concerns added into the mix, to questionable effect.

Ostentatiously structured in "Six Acts and an Epilogue," the film is set in 1977, the year that the original film was released, and that context is made central. Argento's basic premise is retained, the film focusing on the arrival of a young American girl, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, here), at a dance academy in Berlin, where she soon finds that her fellow students are disappearing under mysterious circumstances.

However, Guadagnino incorporates many digressions and additions into this simple scenario. Among them is the context of Baader-Meinhof terrorist activity, which the disappearing student whom we meet in the opening scenes, Chloé Grace Moretz's Patricia, has possibly been involved in. The film begins with Patricia seeking the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, unrecognisable and amusingly credited as one "Lutz Ebersdorf"), and then juxtaposes Klemperer's investigations into the strange activity at the school with Susie's experiences there. Susie comes under the tutelage of Madame Blanc (Swinton, again), a formidable figure who both welcomes and challenges the American abroad as a potential star dancer.

As a case study in creative adaptation, Suspiria undoubtedly has elements of interest. Notably, Guadagnino and his collaborators entirely re-think the visual scheme of the original, replacing Argento's luminously freaky colour palette (bright red walls to match the blood of victims) with an altogether muddier and more muted approach. Thom Yorke's whining, piano-led score is also a subtler, more insidious affair than the clanging, drill-to-the-skull music composed by Goblin for Argento.

Some sequences in the first half are shockingly effective, in particular one that intercuts Susie's dancing with the supernatural torture of another student. With its Pina Bausch-esque routines, the film is certainly more successful than the original in conveying a hallucinatory sense of dance and/as body horror throughout.

As the film progresses, though, Guadagnino's struggle to satisfactorily integrate the various strands becomes more apparent. Flashbacks to Susie's past in a repressive religious community add little to the overall design, while hints at Old World/New World tension are undeveloped. More problematic still is the use of WWII trauma, as the film takes a swerve into the area of Holocaust guilt that seems superficial, unilluminating, and even offensive. Elements of Lacanian psychoanalysis and references to art-horror classics like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) (similarly set "by the wall" in a divided Berlin) also feel like garnishes on the material rather than integrated parts of the whole.

The casting of the film is canny and allusive. Following David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s The Deep End (2001), this is the second time that Swinton has taken on a role originated by Joan Bennett and, as always, she's a distinguished presence, even if lines like "When you dance the dance of another, you have to remake yourself in the image of its creator" might benefit from a campier delivery than she seems prepared to give them. Also reuniting with Guadagnino from A Bigger Splash, Johnson works hard in her demanding role, presenting a more complex heroine than the American innocent played by Jessica Harper in the original version. (Harper herself is given a cameo as Klemperer's wife here.)

Through these and the other female characters, Guadagnino appears to be making a statement of some sort about women's power as a malevolent or benevolent force, one that mobilises maternal archetypes. As such, it's easy to imagine the film in a Midnight Movie double-bill with Darren Aronofsky's mother! (2017), last year's similarly art- and gender-conscious horror extravaganza that polarised audiences as much as Suspiria is certain to. But the power dynamics here are much less absorbing, and while the ending seems intended to be cathartic and empowering, the film still leaves us with the anti-feminist image of older women as parasitic, diabolical creatures. An indulgence that comes close to being a folly, this new Suspiria ends up considerably less than the sum of its body parts.

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