Suspiria ★★★★★

Love and manipulation, they share houses very often. They are frequent bedfellows.

Luca Guadgnino’s Suspiria is a work of love constructed with the most arresting methods of cinematic manipulation. As opposed to an out and out horror film, though the terror looms large over the stony decadence of the Markos Academy, 2018’s Suspiria is far more consumed with the weight of guilt and shame in a divided Germany, eliciting fear less through viscera than through simple and disquieting cognisance between the wheels of history and of witchcraft. No, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a haunting film, not a horror film - its lingering effect is one of hollowness and harrowing reflection, an elegiac odyssey that moves further towards the macabre the closer it comes to grander truths of humanity and our desire to be absolved of our collective sins.

The Suspiria narrative woven here is a descendant rather than a remake of Dario Argento’s iconic 1970s classic, a supremely stylised giallo posing a postmodernist Grimm phantasmagoria gently influenced by the ghosts of Germany’s past but not itself prepossessed by it. Where Argento’s occult evocation was frequently shocking and coloured and scored for maximum impact, Guadagnino’s film consists of a muted palette that evokes a purgatorial quality within the prestigious walls of the Markos Dance Academy, splashes of claret sparingly dressing the tiles and walls and Escherian mirrors as if seeking life from deep below the building’s labyrinthine corridors and staircases. Accompanied by an ethereal, incantatory offering from the masterful Thom York who scores the film, Suspiria here slowly intoxicates and uneasily seduces where once it viscerally choked and alarmed.

The core narrative of the original is kept true to, with young American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travelling to Germany to audition for a prestigious dance academy, wherein she finds herself embroiled in mysteries and stories of missing girls and ancient rituals, of witchcraft and of the occult. In addition however, Guadagnino’s film transposes the narrative onto a late 70s backdrop at an epoch in German history, a time where a wall divided East from West and the atrocities of the war cut those lines of division even deeper. He introduces the history of Germany as an intrinsic moral weight through the troubled psychologist Dr Josef Klemperer, whose wife escaped the academy only to find herself at the merciless feet of the Nazis, and whose loss drives his obsession with the practises of the Markos institute and his search for absolution.

Further, Guadagnino’s film serves as an exploration of femininity in body and mind, a deconstruction of the mother figure whose myriad manifestations permeate every frame of the film, and a subversive salute (submission?) to the power of the female form and the generational female succession that both emboldens and constricts era upon era. As Susie seeks the approval of Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc, Blanc seeks the same of her peers whilst placing her trust and faith in the savant apparent to the almighty Mother’s crumbling control. Love. Manipulation. Give. Take. Mme Blanc tells Susie that together they must break the nose of every beautiful thing, and that extends beyond dance to the very concept of womanhood it would seem.

Talking of dance, the film’s dance sequences are absolutely breathtaking. Ritualistic and writhing, the magic withheld in the motion of the ensemble is palpable and primal. Every step summons something beyond the imaginable, and every collective push and pull is an act of complete submission and yet utter release - the oft-repeated slogan ‘give yourself to the dance’ takes on innumerable meanings following a viewing of the mindfucking mastery of the choreography on display. Even as the dancing entails suffering in separate spaces, which of course is brought most vividly to fruition in Susie’s first ‘performance’ whilst Olga is crushed in another studio, there is a rhythm and a purpose to the contortion and disruption of natural movement that is extraordinary to witness. Dance has the power to make one fly and to break one’s very fibrous being, it is at once destructive and devastating, beautiful and life-giving - this film reminds you of that in ways you could never anticipate.

The performances are all truly special, with Johnson treading the lines between naïveté and knowledge so delicately that a mere shift in a smile or crease in her immaculate facial features promises both her absolute innocence and inexplicable culpability. Tilda Swindon as her opposite, the magnetic Madame Blanc, is equally as divine, exuding an irresistibile gentility that belies the darker powers at work in the academy she fronts - she is an artist and inspiration and within the same breath a controlling and domineering force. Swinton’s performance as Blanc alone is sure to be one for the ages, but in lieu of the fact she also plays a heavily made-up Dr Klemperer, whose character is a million miles from Blanc in every way and who is arguably the sole emotional core of this six part epic, she would be unwise to bet against as the first Academy nominee for two roles in the same film. She is truly formidable.

There is so much to say about Suspiria and I fully intend to say it in due course, but for the time being I feel content to let the wave of what I have witnessed wash over me and crush me beneath its tumultuous and titanic force. Be in absolutely no doubt though, away from my half-coherent ramblings, that this is a masterpiece. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria has done the unthinkable and become the definitive rather than the derivative form of Argento’s epochal entry into the cinematic canon. It is an absolutely beautifully crafted, intricately layered, and striking work of ferocious and focussed cinematic genius, a piece of film that cuts as deep in its themes as it does with a meat hook, and whose climactic cacophony of unforgettable images and noises promise to bury themselves in your memory like steps in the mind of an artist lost to the dance.

And now I can sleep and - should I wake - watch my senses fly apart. I’m ready to go again, and again, and again. One Letterboxd reviewer lost their spine in the theatre watching Mandy - I know where mine is after Suspiria, piercing my cranium and paralysing anything that isn’t the film. 

Singular, satanic, and stunning - Suspiria asked me to give my soul to the dance and now I’ll never get it back.

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