While some may be inclined to compare and contrast Dario Argento’s original Suspiria to Luca Guadagnino’s stunning new interpretation of this world that was first created in 1977, there’s honestly no real reason to do so because both films are such wildly different experiences, with the only real connective tissue between them being their shared title, the character of Susie Bannion (spelled "Suzy" in the original film), the inclusion of witches, and an often dizzying cinematic feeling that enraptures viewers the further both films delve into the madness at the heart of their stories. Beyond that, though, Suspiria (2018) is very much its own thing and a perfect reminder of what every remake should be, by eschewing certain aspects of the original, but also honoring it at the same time, and it’s a line that Guadagnino walks beautifully here.
Quite simply put, Suspiria (2018) is an audacious work of art that effectively reminds us that the pain of rebirth can be traumatic and a wholly visceral experience, which perfectly embodies the intentions of this bold and gorgeous exploration of the devastating clashes that can happen when the old guard is fearful of embracing anything new. It’s also a film that has many, many layers to its storytelling, and it feels like we’ll still be discovering new intricate details in Guadagnino’s Suspiria for years to come.
Suspiria (2018) delivers six acts and an epilogue, opening with a young dancer named Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who, in an act of desperation, visits the office of German psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer, vaguely rambling on about the sinister happenings at the Tanz Academy, with the good doctor dismissing her concerns as just fevered ramblings that have no merit. Klemperer embodies the beliefs of another popular German psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (we even see some of his work referenced in Klemperer’s office), and the archetypes that fueled Jung’s work play an integral role in this iteration of Suspiria, with his concept of the collective unconscious being front and center. After Patricia leaves Klemperer’s office in a state of frenzied desperation, the doctor becomes concerned about his patient when she goes missing, which also happens to coincide with the new Tanz Academy arrival, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an unassuming Midwesterner with no professional dance training, whose nearly supernatural predilection for this physical art form surprises those in charge at the famed institution, including renowned dancer and teacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) who immediately recognizes that Bannion’s abilities are on a level unlike anything she’s ever seen before.
As Susie settles in at Tanz, she’s befriended by the lovely Sara (Mia Goth, who absolutely shines here), and the two young ladies quickly strike up a friendship as the latter helps Susie navigate her way through the culture shock of not only living in a new country, but also finding her place at the dance company. But once word gets out that Patricia hasn’t simply just up and left Tanz, but has completely disappeared, Sara begins to do some investigating into some of the rumors about the women in charge at Tanz, with Susie coming along for the ride. And, of course, that’s when Guadagnino begins to pull away the various layers to this beautifully crafted story written by David Kajganich, which dives into the power struggles of the coven at the heart of the Tanz Academy and explores what happens when old institutions are fearful of embracing change.
For as much as Suspiria (2018) is a celebration of the power of women and the expressionism of art, it also serves as a powerful reminder of how the patriarchal society tends to be dismissive of the role of its female members, which we see played out through the inclusion of Dr. Klemperer in this narrative. We learn that during World War II, he sent his beloved wife, Anke (played by Jessica Harper) away, which has haunted him for decades, and he has spent that time atoning for the loss of his beloved by utilizing his professional career as a means to explore his own survivor’s guilt through his female patients. While it’s no secret at this point that Swinton plays the role of Klemperer (who was originally credited as "Lutz Ebersdorf") under heavy prosthetics, her taking on the role of the doctor isn’t merely just some stylistic stunt from Guadagnino—it’s an incredibly purposeful move by both the filmmaker and actress, although I feel like saying anything more on the matter might remove some of the mystery to this storyline in particular. It’s undoubtedly a bold move, but one that pays off in some beautiful ways later on in the film.
It’s most certainly not a coincidence that nearly every single cast member in Suspiria (2018) is female, with the only two male speaking roles going to a pair of detectives tasked with looking into the disappearance of Patricia, and we watch as these powerful women at the Tanz Academy turn the men into merely playthings, without them even realizing what is happening. It’s one of the few moments of levity that we get in this version of Suspiria that beautifully counterbalances the slightly oppressive nature of the narrative that carries a heaviness to it, a weight that I am still feeling nearly 24 hours after seeing the film (and I suspect it’ll stick with me for quite some time as well). But, considering the themes that writer Kajganich weaves into his densely packed script, that weight is wholly warranted and necessary, and I think it was a brilliant move to utilize the ideological division that threatens to separate these women at Tanz against the backdrop of a post-World War II Berlin.
In terms of the performances in Suspiria (2018), Swinton is absolutely incredible as usual (I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a role that I didn’t absolutely love), but it’s Johnson’s guttural transformative work here that left the biggest impression on me, as it’s right up there as one of my favorite performances of 2018. At the beginning of Suspiria, Susie seems like the typical fish out of water character that has no idea of the dangers lurking all around her, which would of course seem very similar to the character of Suzy from Argento’s film, but with Guadagnino not willing to traverse the same path as the OG Suspiria, he takes this character in a bold new direction that transcends anything I could have possibly expected from this version. Johnson’s ferocity and gracefulness in the film is what anchors this cinematic experience, as we watch this young woman quite literally give herself over to the power of the dance.
On a technical level, Suspiria (2018) also avoids duplicating Argento’s colorful palette from the original film, instead giving most of his locales, costumes, and even the characters themselves something of a washed-out appearance (there’s a sly reference to Susie’s exceedingly pale visage at one point), which perfectly complements the story, as this is a narrative that mostly exists within the confines of the “old world” (so to speak). And when we get to the film’s gnarly and visceral climax, that’s when Guadagnino leans into a more crimson-hued palette, perfectly complementing the evocative culmination of his daring new vision that not only reimagines Suspiria, but in some ways also pays tribute to Argento’s "The Three Mothers" trilogy with several references and homages that are sure to delight fans of Italian cinema.
If I’m being perfectly honest here, I feel like anything I write about Guadagnino’s Suspiria isn’t nearly going to do the film justice, especially considering just how densely packed the story elements are in this version. But as someone who considers Argento’s Suspiria as a hugely influential cinematic experience that helped cultivate my love for thought-provoking horror storytelling, I am madly in love with this new version that delivers an understandably divisive experience that will no doubt have genre fans going back and forth once the film is released. Make no mistake, Suspiria (2018) is a horrific, hypnotic, and sometimes gruesomely perverse experience, but regardless of how you end up feeling about Guadagnino’s bold new direction, I guarantee it’s a film you won’t soon forget. I know I won’t.
Movie Score: 5/5
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