Suspiria

Suspiria ★★★★

Luca Guadagnino did Dario Argento's Suspiria right by doing it completely opposite. Gone are the neons and Technicolor colors, in are the concrete slabs and Rainier Werner Fassbinder's sepia-toned 1970's Berlin. Gone are the Goblin whispers, in are the Thom Yorke kicking, squealing, Gucci little tenors. Gone is the short runtime, in is an epic that spans Ohio to East and West Germany and millions of years ago. But of all the opposite choices, done with great care and immense craft, Guadagnino makes two major distinctions with his version. First, unlike Argento's Suspiria, this one you know that the dance troupe is a witches' coven even if you haven't seen the original film. The mystery isn't in what's happening and who's doing it, but it's all about why and, somewhat more importantly, which witch they give allegiance to. And second, instead of being a fairytale using youth as a loss of innocence at the hands of something that's been haunting the Earth long before her, Guadagnino loses all innocence and makes this a film about the corruption of desiring power. And the collective pain that comes from that pursuit.

From the start, Susie (Dakota Johnson), the reformed Amish American dancer without a record of formal training, asks to become the lead protagonist, replacing the missing girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Her introduction is a lust for rewards and approval of Mother Blanc (Tilda Swinton), which plays out by the end in something that makes Scanners look like a kid's movie. And yes, like Cronenberg, Guadagnino is most interested in body horror. Doubling over bodies, the urine that secretes from bodies in immense pain, cracking, crawling.

But the importance of bodies here are first and foremost that they are women. Fassbinder's own, Angela Winkler tells Susie that her room and board, upon acceptance, is free because the institution supports a woman's access to money; what she brings with her is her's because the world will not give her any more. An obvious, yet delicate first introduction to the witches and the history of witch accusations being women who had money through inheritance following a death. Women's bodies are of course used in the dance scenes, and Guadagnino's dance is far more sexual than Argento's. Again, this is not a loss of innocence tale, this is a movie for 2018 femininity and 2018 politics. It's about divisions, about delusions, and how divisions birth delusions, and if those delusions are grounded in reality, those divisions give way to mayhem. But also how men label “delusions” first, particularly if the source is a woman.

The Berlin Wall has cut Berlin in half and the dance school is on the East Germany side. It's a physical border that makes human existence harder by separating people and defining them by Communist and Democratic ideas. There are countless mentions of Germany under Nazi rule, a time period that the Coven does not want to return to, but another time in which distinctions of difference through human institutional labels, caused a great rift in society. Borders, religion, ego, all of these distinctions that fracture the mind into definitions of others lead to the delusions that separate us. On one side of Germany there are extremists who plot bombings on the Western side of Capitalism, a repeated police blotter and television set talking head aside that Guadagninon commits to. The missing dancer, having her own mental breakdown through defining what she sees, is immediately given the narrative of a wanted revolutionary by the police and delusional by her doctor. The more people are defined by institutions, guarded by men, the more they are incorrect in their assumptions, letting cultural mores dictate placement of individuals.

To give an example of how immensely layered Suspiria, it's not just the completely fractured Cold War Europe that's used to explore the idea of new borders creating a feasting ground of delusions. Susie talks of being raised a Amish and how the Amish separated from the Mennonites when they deemed the Mennonites were getting too progressive. The first vehicle she sees is a truck that comes to tend to her dying mother, it's adorned in American flags. She tells Madame Blanc of hitch-hiking to New York to watch a dance performance, the first overcompensation for being denied modern advancements due to how her parent's religious sect had splintered off. Each person who comes to the troupe comes with their own fragments of being that's been chopped up by society and made them vessels for delusions.

Back to fem·i·nin·i·ty. My favorite exchange in this film is when Blanc takes Susie aside to work on her jumps, because she's too drawn to the floor, of which there's a demonic presence within and it's pulling her downward. Susie describes the dance as beautiful and cheerful, and Blanc admonishes her by saying (excuse my memory, this isn't exact), "beauty and cheerfulness have no place in our time. beauty and cheerfulness need to be punched in the teeth." Time moves with overcompensations and with the realization that thousands of years of patriarchy have put men and women in different roles, making the deciders of the future decidedly male and kept male by men, there is a swing toward immense hatred of the system. Some of it, though grounded in fact, is met with the dismissal of certain marches, speeches, or online rhetoric as being delusional behavior. But we are in a time where norms are being punched in the teeth because there's been too much focus on maintaining feminine beauty and cheerful approaches to change. This is 1977, but it's clear that Suspiria supports the Brexit-Trumpism punch to those institution's very teeth as a response. What are those but great dividers? Each divider in Suspiria is shown as a sowing ground for hatred, destruction, and a lack of humanity. And never does it look so sad and foolish as the Berlin Wall. It is also, important to note, that the Coven is divided on who their leader should be. This is a breeding ground for a potential bloodbath due to the communal discord.

I have expressed a lot without giving anything away. And that's because there are so many layers in Suspiria. But I will pause to say that, despite the impeccable craft on display, there are a few small items that give me pause. Tilda's dual performance is a distraction more than it is a distinction (although it's distinction might be that any emotional release should come from a female performer, not a man; still, the voice is a distraction). While the mythology of one Mother is immensely built up, it would be nice to know about the other Two, particularly how the finale plays out. And I'd have to see it again to see if Moretz's intro scene leaves any impression on me or whether I felt a distance because this was the first instance where we were being shown that Guadagnino is completely doing his own thing, as she's not running through the woods on a rainy day, chased by a presence. Seeing this a second time, the rating can only go up because there's so much texture and thought on display that, with the exception of Swinton's Josef, the only items that give me pause could be answered on a second or third viewing. That's because the ideas that Suspiria dances around are immensely profound and completely warrant the epic runtime. And the craftsmanship is simply to die for. The production design and camerawork fuses into a spiritual entity that observes the world through mirrors, whip pans, and zooms that announce the camera is moving and that nothing is seamless. And I love if there's any callback to the Argento colors, it's again, its own thing: a dancing hologram that represents a communication with the other realm, it's movements like a peacock, it's colors like Argento's peacock set dressing. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom gets to make a combo Fassbinder-colored/Apichatpong Weerasethakul-communal film and the DP does some amazing work; with crystalized viewpoints and DIY push-ins.

I admire how starkly different Guadagnino made this movie; you can love the 77 version and this one and you'll love them for the opposite reasons. I admire how committed he is in defining divisions and how women are told they are delusional even when evidence proves that their fears were all justified (there's a 4-years-before-the-Holocaust aside that's heartbreaking and true in how we've placed "the man knows best" into all societal makeups, even though history can show so many moments when the man didn't listen). Control is intrinsically linked to delusions of grandeur. If delusions prove to be true, the divisions will be so strong, then only mayhem will ensue. And, finally, I admire everyone involved that gave him the space to lay out the marks for such a sharp, immensely labyrinthal diagram of choosing sides.

This is a movie that isn't necessarily "scary" even though it's sometimes very gross; and I'm not sure the big finale works as well as the rest of the film, simply because it involves some CGI and some lore feels lacking, but I will have to see it again, it might work better on a second viewing; the more I think about the end, the more I like it (“I choose to die”). However, what’s most impressive is that it's a movie you can get lost in, breathe in, feel in your spine as you shift in your seat. And that's much, much cooler than scares. You'll think about it for days.

[I watched this prompt-free, of course, but I'm going to include it as a Hooptober 5.0 selection, ticking off the box of decades 1/6; such a modern wonder]

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