Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62ndBFI London Film Festival. In this article, Georgina Bartlett reviews Luca Guadagnino’s stylish update to a horror classic.
Dario Argento’s 70s giallo Suspiria doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not supposed to. The acting talent is questionable, the plot near wafer thin, in retrospect, and yet it remains an indisputable classic. Like any vivid nightmare, it is a whole little universe in itself, one dripping in neon glows and drilled with a vicious, pounding score by Italian prog-rock group Goblin. It is the retro horror to dig out on a dry October night, when in need of a jolt of artistic inspiration and very few demands in the way of brainwork. Because that is the power Suspiria offers: to entice and to energise your senses. It is a window to give yourself over to the wondrous madness of it all. This deal has not been broken in 2018, though it is now rewritten on different terms. This time, it wants you to give your soul to the dance.
In this rework, director Luca Guadagnino has conjured a parallel universe to build on the one before. He doesn’t “fill in the blanks” so much as wrestle with something writhing in the air – not to tie it down, but to investigate it deeply. He asks, what does it all mean? What’s really going on here? The story’s bones are a little cracked: Susie (Dakota Johnson) is an American newcomer to The Helena Markos Dance Company, which houses its all-female entourage free of charge. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) is the enchanting esteemed choreographer who commands the studio with softness and sharp edges in equal measure. She’s a witch, you see, and an alluring one at that.
In fact, the company’s staff make up a coven – most of its characters verging on the cartoonish – and chaos bubbles beneath the service. Our outsider is the elderly Dr. Jozef Klemperer, the last person to see one of the company’s disturbed and mysteriously disappeared dancers. (While his steady embroilment in the coven’s workings is intriguing, I probably spent a little too much time squinting at Tilda Swinton through some incredible prosthetics. Swinton is, as always, a wonder – but it’s a little distracting.) And then there is Sara, portrayed by a shining Mia Goth, who finds perils lurking behind secret doors.
Far from the dollhouse garishness of the original, Guadagnino sets up shop in a divided 1977 Berlin, where the fantastical is grounded occasionally by turbulent events surrounding the Red Army Faction. He opts for a muted palette of greys and browns, watering down the signature primary colours of the source material. The costume design, thankfully, is still to die for, and the austere construction of the academy is a convincing worn face of wartime.
For a viewer bogged down by the heavier elements of Suspiria, all become lucid when the dance takes centre stage. The static clears, the spotlight narrows, and we can sense something knocking from the inside. The dance – a series of primal convulsions and strikes through the air, a physical spell written with arms and legs – is the thumping heart beneath the floorboards of Suspiria.
Aided by flitting camera work, the viewing experience is breathless, uncomfortable even, and completely enveloping as it never lets up. Commanded with a quiet ferocity by Johnson, the dance is the energising equivalent of Argento’s swirling kaleidoscope of colourful thrills. There is a gruesome cross-cutting sequence in the early acts, which weaponises Johnson’s movements to contort another dancer’s body elsewhere; the witches’ victim is hurtled into the studio mirrors over and over again, and down to the ground, over and over again. This is “darkness, tears, sighs”. This is Suspiria.
As is bottled up to bursting in the dance, the terror of this rework is a concoction of brutality and sensuality. Thom Yorke’s drifting score, etching pin pricks of discomfort here and there, make for the perfect disquieting partner – just as Goblin was to the 70s mayhem. And when the slow-burn tension does finally simmer away to chaos, the chaos brings hell drenched in red. Take note: this is not a scary film, but Argento fans won’t be disappointed by the gore. In an incredibly satisfying makeover, Guadagnino crafts tension inch-by-inch with sophistication, then in a snap, it implodes with flamboyance and self-aware humour.
Despite the long run time of 152 minutes, I never felt anything but utterly transfixed. If the original is a bright splash of colour on a child’s bedroom wall, this is the work of a grown-up; she opts for a cream overcoat, leaves a faint outline of playfulness behind, and paints an elaborate mural on top of it all. The original is a beautiful mess, and this is a calculated beauty. They coexist as pieces of incredible cinema – both films are electrifying, and both operate at the peak of their respective artistic powers.