Suspiria ★★★½

While Argento’s film is set in Freiburg, Guadagnino’s vision is informed by the turmoil of Berlin in 1977, with a hue closer to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the better to encompass the anxieties of the “German Autumn.” The Berlin Wall is on prominent display outside the academy, and political unrest lingers at the film’s core—appearing in messy spurts in the form of Red Army Faction intrigue and sexist therapists who are quick to call women delusional (particularly one Dr. Josef Klemperer, played by Tilda Swinton in prosthetic makeup). So many of the film’s decisions were based on this grim aesthetic, yet this specific new setting overcomplicates the story, burdening it with too much upheaval buzzing around the central plot, when the tension could have been better focused on the peril facing the women at the school.

This fragmented backdrop becomes integral to every aspect of the new Suspiria: Deep inside the dance academy, the coven is split over its leadership, mirroring the divisions happening in Berlin itself. Meanwhile, our main character brings the baggage of her chaste Mennonite Ohio upbringing, which conflicts with her desire to use her body, in all its writhing, exposed glory, for artistic expression.

In her first big dance scene, Susie performs a piece choreographed by the school’s director, Madame Blanc (Swinton again, in the second of several roles), who is as pale and stern as her name suggests. Afterward, Susie tells Madame Blanc that dancing the piece “felt like what it must feel like to fuck.” The line, so brash and unexpected, feels almost comical—and after such a serious scene, the levity can feel like whiplash. This is also, curiously, one of the only mentions of sex; for a film throbbing with such erotic tension, Suspiria largely eschews a sexual awakening for its sheltered protagonist. In many ways, while the movie is unafraid to show the extremities that a body can undergo, it lacks the flipside of pain: desire. It can be argued that Guadagnino’s celebrated earlier film, Call Me by Your Name, also lacked a certain passion when it should have been brimming with it, the camera too eager to pan away from the fornication. Likewise, in Suspiria, the passion is cold—its idea of a good time is some cackling witches threatening a man’s genitals with a sharp hook.

This being a ballet school, of course there are many mirrors, but Guadagnino uses them, perhaps inadvertently, to reveal something beyond mere reflection. He does interesting, if confusing, things with them during the conversations between Susie and her classmate Sara (Mia Goth). He first shows Sara’s reflection in focus with Susie’s out of focus; later, both reflections are obscured in the mirror’s surface. Perhaps Guadagnino is hinting at the melding of their positions (before Susie eventually usurps Sara’s place as the faculty’s favorite student), but it’s also possible there isn’t much purpose here beyond visual flair, something this film—with its quick zooms and pans that feel dizzyingly balletic—has in abundance. But while mirrors make for great metaphors (and convenient psychoanalytic readings), the film’s too-often-clumsy use of them can feel as superficial as a funhouse.

This extends to the dance academy’s warped treatment of the female body. The academy is a safe haven from the outside world’s oppression, offering financial and artistic freedom to its students, but it also brutally destroys the bodies of those who do not conform. After falling out of favor with the faculty, one student, Olga, becomes a victim of this treatment, as she is physically torn apart during the aforementioned dance by Susie. Touched with some kind of hexing power by Madame Blanc, Susie enters a violent trance while Olga’s body involuntarily echoes her movements in a nearby dance room surrounded (you guessed it) by mirrors. Not only does she literally break apart—bones jutting out, skin stretched and contorted to the point where you see guts bursting through the seams—but she must watch herself fall apart from every angle."

— an excerpt from my Suspiria review for The Nation

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