Written by David Kajganich
Directed by Luca Guadagino
In 1977, Suzie, a young American woman arrives into the heart of political strife igniting Berlin. She has come to join the prestigious Markos Dance Academy, hoping to work under the tutelage of Madame Blanc. Suzie slowly becomes aware of interpersonal conflicts that happened between the matrons of the academy and former student, Patricia. Patricia fled the school and sought out the help of psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer. She tells him that the women of the school have eyes and ears that can see her no matter where she goes and that she is a marked woman. Klemperer becomes further convinced when he reads the girl’s diary detailing her discoveries of a cabal working beneath the surface of the Markos school. All the while, revolutionary groups sow chaos throughout Berlin, dredging up guilt from the war and forcing a confrontation.
Suspiria is a masterpiece. Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich have taken the decadently stylish giallo original and transformed the source material into something of thematic weight and importance. It’s obvious Guadagnino loves the original movie and references it in many ways; however, he also sees the lack of a plot as a hindrance from making it a truly great film. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is mostly a vehicle to deliver gore and garish visuals. However, the characters are all written so one-dimensionally that there is no pathos woven in with the horrific events that occur. In this way, the remake rebuilds the world of Suspiria, stripping away the fairy tale aesthetic and focusing more on the mystery.
There is the always present specter of the Holocaust throughout the movie. The war is mentioned many times, and the industrialist whose murder sparks the German Autumn taking place in the background was a former and enthusiastic member of the Third Reich. Dr. Klemperer’s wife Anke went missing in 1943, and as the story unfolds, we learn about how this is tied to secrets the doctor has been keeping. Guilt is soaked into the fibers of the clothes. It’s in this light that we are eventually introduced to the Three Mothers, the founders of witchcraft who embody primal concepts that are said to have existed before the dawn of the universe. Mother Lachrymum (Tears), Mother Tenebraum (Darkness), and Mother Suspirioum (Sighs). Originally theorized by Thomas DeQuincey, these figures act as counterpoints to the mythical Fates and Graces. These are the three Sorrows of humanity.
Suspiria is a film about the transfer of power from the old generation to the new and how that transfer is never a clean one. Often the older generation tries to cover up its guilt, shaming the young for their hubris and ambition, motivated out of their shame. Suzy doodles her dreams of traveling from her Mennonite household to Berlin and has her drawings tossed out. Later, Suzy’s mother catches her in a closet pleasuring herself and has her hand scorched by an iron. The young women are often not believed, particularly by Dr. Klemperer. He shrugs off Patricia’s manic rant as signs of her mental illness, not entertaining the reality of it until it’s too late. As his history with Anke is revealed, we see there was another instance of refusing to listen to a woman who was trying to communicate a warning.
Amongst this thematically imposing story, we have gorgeous desaturated visuals. The world of Cold War Berlin is palpable wet and overcast, rain transitioning to snow over the course of the film. The city is a washed out, everyone wearing a variation of black or brown. However, Guadagnino sweeps his camera around with crackling energy, pushing tracking shots through empty lobbies, whipping the camera around to catch people gaining on us. The gore surpasses the violence presented on screen in the original. Bones are made into matchsticks. The witches create shadows that become holes in the floor ready to catch their victims. A coterie of victims is discovered in the third act that will unnerve. But the true moment of terror is a grand guignol finale that rivals any presentation of the occult put to screen in my viewing. The darkness and evil on the screen vibrate, and it is pretty incredible.
The performances by Tilda Swinton are as expected perfection. She plays Madame Blanc and a couple of other critical roles, one of whom I can’t imagine the audience will miss. In all three parts, she becomes lost until only the character remains and you have to remind yourself this is the same person. The finale puts all three on screen simultaneously. The great surprise of the movie is Dakota Johnson, an actress who I never really had high expectations for. However, I know better now, as she transitions her character through a spellbinding arc becoming something entirely different by her final scene of the picture, a guardian angel and a potential portent of cataclysmic evil in one.
I knew I would likely enjoy Suspiria but didn’t realize how much I would love this movie. It is everything I want from a horror film. That said, this movie doesn’t have a broad audience appeal. It is dense and novel-like in its presentation, and the majority of the film is left up for audience interpretation, not quite David Lynch but similar in its philosophy of dreams and symbolism. This has quickly risen the ranks to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year and has me eager to see what Guadagnino has in store next.