Suspiria ★★★★½

Added to: Luca Guadagnino Ranked & 2018 Ranked

The reason people have been afraid of witches is that they were women, powerful women. That fear fueled a hatred in the world’s age-old patriarchy and Guadagnino’s film makes that an important element of its structure, yet people expecting this to be just an exceptional feminist tale will come out fairly deceived. Guadagnino makes his film a hypnotic horror tale that places the entertaining story Argento conceived in the 70’s into a complex historical context that deepens the shadows set up by the original.

The film opens its first act (of six) in the rowdy streets of divided Berlin. The city is split between a younger generation and an older generation who fight an ongoing struggle concerning Germany’s past actions. Amongst them walks a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who deliriously twirls into the office of an old psychotherapist. She stammers about witches and dark secrets hidden in her dance academy. The old man, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton), can’t make much sense of what she’s saying and she leaves as abruptly as she came. After this hectic sequence, we meet young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) on her way to join the dance academy. She’s like an innocent sheep but it soon becomes quite apparent that she carries a lion’s heart within. As if by the witches’ magic she works her way from innocent newcomer to lead dancer of the performance that’s on the way.

Guadagnino immediately sets his film up with an eerie haunting tone. He doesn’t hide the fact that the academy is a ploy for a witches’ coven for it is both important for what plays behind the scenes as what plays in plain view. The experimental, modern dances aren’t just sweet ballet-pieces, they are as unearthly and demonic as you’d expect the gestures of a witch to be. There’s a lucid power coming from such actions. They aren’t just dances, they are rituals. Many of the things happening in the film are rituals. As soon as Susie arrives the witches notice that the lead witch Helena Markos, a gross creature struck by many illnesses, longs to take her young body to heal herself. It’s an inherently simple concept but it makes anything happening on screen, all backstories, side-stories and layers included, come together like a rhythmic dance of itself to finalize this insane ritual.

The problem? The coven is as divided as the city it’s housing in. The dance academy is placed directly in front of the infamous Berlin Wall, a sign as clear as day but therefore only a more solid symbol to portray one of the film’s key thematics. Half of the witches are sheepishly following the troll hiding in their basement in fear of something worse since she convinced them to be one of the three most important witches on earth. The other half follows Madame Blanc, the woman actually leading the academy while her companion rots away down below. Between them, there’s a constant fight, never clearly shown until the brutal climax, but always palpably felt. Their academy may be a place where women are safe from the mistakes of the other sex that control the unrest outside, but their own divided ideals prove to be just as worrisome.

Suspiria thus makes itself to be a hefty, dense allegory. The country is struck with the guilt of its actions during world war II. It is mostly shown in the sidelines as newsflashes and noises in the background but also finds form in the scarred life of Dr. Klemperer. In a backstory that may form a tad bit too late, his past life with his wife during the war is dissected. Much like the rest of the land, he feels guilty for what happened to her back then. As the one man, a toy at the hands of the coven, his place is that of a witness. He was forced to witness the Nazi’s take over and he is forced once more to see these witches do their thing. Through him, the question of the complex placement of power is pulled to the foreground. He was powerless to stop the Nazi regime and he is just as powerless to stop the coven’s evil plans. An unexpected yet much-deserved deus ex machina absolves him from these pains but not before clearly explaining how power must and can be controlled.

Suspiria presents a messy power struggle which shows how the shadows of the past always keep looming over the present. It may take place long ago but presents a discrepancy that still hurts modern-day society. It’s a story fractured by people with contrasting ideas culminating in a world out of balance. It’s a massive, universal story brought back to a highly specific boiling pot of toil and trouble. It’s a gloriously morbid and ice-cold stinger of a film that dares to play with the concept of a horror film, both embracing its gruesome cliches and reinventing the purpose of such a story.

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