Suspiria: We Danced on the Ceiling, by Scott Nye
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento’s landmark 1977 horror film, wastes no time establishing precisely what will make it both similar and distinct from the classic. Like Argento’s, Guadagnino starts his film with ominous music and the sound of rain and the year 1977. But where Argento started on an obvious soundstage and only heightened the artifice as Patricia (Eva Axén) flees a castle-like ballet studio, Guadagnino finds Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) already on the streets of Berlin, surrounded by police activity, running toward her psychiatrist’s office.
Already, we know this film will be dealing with the world outside the ballet studio in a way the original never touched. So as we come to learn that Patricia was involved in far-left militant activism, that her psychiatrist Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) survived the Holocaust, that Susie (Dakota Fanning) – who hasn’t been introduced yet but who will necessarily play a less central role than the protagonist of the original – is not an American ballet student studying abroad but a self-taught amateur fleeing her Amish upbringing…well, these are certainly departures from the Suspiria we’ve come to adore, but you can’t say the film doesn’t cut out a space for itself rather quickly.
Guadagnino’s film – written by his A Bigger Splash screenwriter David Kajganich, lensed by Uncle Boonmee cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, scored by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke – retains the collaborative spirit that made his last two films (A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name) so winning, but here nearly threatens to send the whole thing crumbling. Argento kept his premise – witches run a ballet school – slim to the point of withholding, better to amplify the psychological scar it tends to leave. Guadagnino is intent on using it as a way to explore (even explain?) the evil that plagued Germany and which could – if not properly checked – rise again. It’s certainly not unambitious. It also way misjudges how much is needed to make the story work, how much the audience can imagine and extrapolate, and how great portraits of evil are necessarily a little ambiguous. His Suspiria feels at time like the product of too much collaboration, too many ideas, too many contributions and “takes” on what it all means.
The film more successfully extrapolates these themes by tying the coven more firmly to a dance company, making the quest for power, the factions and their loyalties, and the playful attitudes among the girls an extension of both the witchcraft and the dancing. The coven feels like a genuine organization, a little uneasy and a great deal loving, even when disagreement strikes. Swinton has three roles in the film, and while I won’t get into the third, the second and most obvious comes in the form of the company’s director, Madame Blanc. Here her physical command is given its best expression, her capacity to own each room with a glance its most natural outlet. Swinton builds into this certainty amongst her students a certain ill ease amongst her colleagues, as the competition for leadership is not currently going her way.
I have not been overly convinced of Johnson’s talent, and for a good while of this film, I thought it’d be improved by switching her part with Mia Goth, who has a greater and more demonstrable handle on the tone Guadagnino is striking, steals every scene she’s in without overtly lusting for it, and is in considerably greater physical command as the terror begins to overtake the pupils. But it’s precisely Johnson’s trepidation and amateurish approach that convinces, her obvious seniority to Goth in age despite the latter playing the more established dancer that lends a certain energy that no screenwriting or direction could express. Goth is undoubtedly the film’s most valuable player, seizing the fulcrum of audience sympathy and curiosity at its most vital moment, and truly moving in concert with the camera in a way even Swinton hasn’t the opportunity to do. The sequences spotlighting her are the film’s most substantively beautiful, even as her quest grows more and more gruesome.
And boy, does this film know how to deliver a set piece. From Susie’s destructive first performance for the ensemble to the deranged finale, and relatively simple moves like the introduction of telepathy (to say nothing of the astounding dream sequences), Guadagnino clearly sees little other reason for witches to take their home in a dance studio than for them to unleash their evil powers in the most disgustingly physical ways possible. He has a really exceptional knack for directing his actors to physical expression, burying in their gestures what most films would overwhelm with dialogue, and the excuse the dual dance/horror genre gives him to push those bodies to seized with relish. He finds both the joy – a small peck on the cheek as they run through the motions of choreography – and the terror, letting the former come fleetingly at the latter leave lasting damage.
Guadagnino’s conception of evil more or less keeps pace with his desire to explicate, until eventually the evil overtakes this crutch and once again consumes the film nearly whole. Horror as a genre is, at its root, about confronting something so evil and awful it defies rational explanation. The finale of this film is audaciously vile, divesting itself firmly of what little common sense held the film in place and truly unleashing something resembling the portraits of Hell you might see in ancient and classical paintings. Here is where Johnson’s strange performance finally pays off, the energy she had been projecting that once seemed clumsy now emerging absorbent, as though her Susie had been taking a piece of each person’s soul along the way. For some, after over two hours and a fair chunk of change to go, it might be too late to save a horror film virtually devoid of scares. Even as someone given to such exercises, it certainly tries the patience here and there. But there are plenty of horror movies obsessed with what we can’t see; refreshing, from time to time, to deal in one willing to lay it all out there and still live up to the genre.