By Liam Lacey
Pretentious, which might be defined as a showing an excess of ambition, is a modifier that clings to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria — a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Day-Glo horror classic — like a wet leotard.
Running more than two-and-half hours (in six acts and an epilogue), Guadagnino’s remake is an hour longer than the original film and far more sprawling, including not only the dance academy run by witches, but everything from Mennonites, Jungian psychology and the Holocaust. Impeccably designed and shot — as you might expect from the director of last year’s Oscar-nominated homoerotic Tuscan idyll, Call Me by Your Name — the film is calculatedly and ridiculously haute-rageous.
“We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” declares Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a severe Pina Bausch-like choreographer who wields her long cigarette like a matador’s sword. (I thought “Pick the nose” might have been funnier.) Although I can’t share the enthusiasm of some reviewers from the Venice Film Festival premiere, once you’re strapped in for the arduous ride, Suspiria has a few rewards.
The dancing, choreographed by Belgian Damien Jalet, is raw and stylized and the score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has a mournful, hymnal quality. The film also has an abundance of Tilda Swinton, in three different roles (two of them under piles of prosthetics). The star Dakota Johnson as a virginal Mennonite girl from Ohio (seen in a jigsaw of flashbacks) — who projects a tangy mix of innocence and insolence that served her well in the Fifty Shades franchise — dances fiercely and sports a waist-length swath of red hair, which gives the film a peppery dash of hot colour, which is exactly what Berlin in 1977 seems to desperately need.
The city groans beneath soot-grey skies and rain, in the political crisis of “German autumn” amidst news reports of the Baader-Meinhoff terror, the Lufthansa hijacking and rioting in the streets. Meanwhile, Susie’s unschooled body language speaks to Madame Blanc, one of the ancient tribe of witches who runs the Helena Markos Dance Academy, a pragmatic bank-like building facing the Berlin Wall.
The witches are middle aged and elderly women, more like a co-op than a coven, who share meals at a long table and chicken wing nights at a local restaurant. But there are rumblings of dissension within the group and a battle for secession, with the pencil-thin Madame Blanc vying against the academy’s founder, briefly seen as a ghastly mountain of diseased flesh known as Madame Marcos (once again, Tilda Swinton).
Between torturous rehearsals, Susie and her English friend Sara (Mia Goth) travel on Nancy Drew-like investigations through the nooks and subterranean catacombs of the building. Sara also connects to an wizened German psychiatrist with a papery complexion, named Dr. Klemperer (and again, Tilda Swinton), the last person to have seen a former dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), who raves about witch dance academy and then disappears, rumoured to have joined the political underground. Notes from her psychiatric sessions refer to a witch mythology, previously employed in Argento’s Mother of Tears trilogy of films, derived from Thomas De Quincey’s 19th-century psychological fantasy, Suspiria de Profundis (“sigh from the depths.”)
The witches are both modern feminists (women-run, economically independent) and traditionally evil: They snicker and wave sickles at the genitals of a couple of hypnotized detectives for fun but save the rough stuff for their own kind. In the film’s torture set piece, Susie performs a dance in one room, while in another, a rebellious Russian dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) is trapped in a mirrored locked rehearsal space. Each of Susie’s thrusts and gyrations causes unseen hands to twist and wrench Olga’s body until her bones are broken and flesh ruptured. As a metaphor for a chain that ties pain to beauty, it’s unsubtle, though memorable.
Creative cruelty and vivid perversity are what horror movies do. But the grossest thing about Suspiria is the script’s attempt to give the witches (who seem to have sat out the Third Reich) historical significance by associating them with the Holocaust and post-War German guilt. There’s blatant Nazi torture iconography (meat hooks), a subplot about Dr. Klemperer’s survivor’s guilt and a climactic dance number called Volk (a loaded Nazi word meaning “nation” or “race”) with young women contorting in barely there blood-red ropes. Suspiria has nothing of value to say about German history but is hell-bent on saying it anyway. Only an art movie could display such awful taste.
Suspiria. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kagjanich. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton. Opens November 2 in Toronto (Scotiabank Theatre), Montreal, Vancouver and expanding to other markets November 9.