Suspiria ★★★★★

This is a waltz thinking
About our bodies
What they mean
For our salvation

Yes, five stars. Perfect marks for this sprawling, deranged, indigestible disaster, the movie that nobody wanted and almost everybody hated, which despite its much-derided bloated runtime I have now seen somewhere in the vicinity of eight to ten times since opening weekend in November 2018. (That’s exactly eight to ten times more than I’ve seen Argento’s original film, just so you know that there won’t be any of the usual comparisons going on in this review.) Like my responses to Hereditary and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is of necessity going to be a more personal reflection than anything else; it’s also, appropriately for the film we’re talking about, going to be a rather excessive and overlong one, but that’s the sort of scope I need to explain why I keep returning to its dark, byzantine halls.

In 2018 I was sixteen and just starting to appreciate cinema as a form. Prior to that year I’d only been interested in the slate of A24 (and A24-adjacent) horror pictures, most of which, as I discussed in the Hereditary response, have aged somewhat ambivalently (if not exactly poorly) for me. But at the very least they were getting me to go to the movies more frequently and with greater interest, to follow the reviews a bit, and this is how I found out about Suspiria. I knew the simple nature of its project was considered controversial and dubious from the go, but early hints—a leaked on-set image of Dakota Johnson with her chest split open into a bloody vulva, her face a mask of spiritual or sexual ecstasy; shocked reactions after a gruesome clip screened at CinemaCon—seemed promising. At the same time, however, they indicated that this was going be gorier fare than I was used to; that, in combination with the polarized critical reaction at Venice, prompted me to read the full (if sparse) plot summary on Wikipedia weeks before the film was released.

I naïvely thought this would give me a measure of control and preparedness, but when I finally saw it in theaters (the first Sunday in November, in New York City; my father and I bought tickets late and had to literally run to catch the movie before it started), I was overwhelmed. Those who have seen Suspiria will understand very well, whether they love it or hate it, how little an awareness of the general “plot” actually communicates the texture of the film. About five minutes in, when Chloë Grace Moretz (in my humble opinion, the cast’s sole bum note) tells her elderly therapist that the witches are going to eat her cunt on a plate, I felt the first stirrings of a dread entirely unfamiliar from any of the slow-burn A24 films I’d seen—indeed, from almost any film I’d ever seen at that point. I knew the big scene that had nauseated audiences at CinemaCon was coming, and so the whole first act was suffused with a sort of quickening, anticipatory anxiety, instigated not only by the looming awareness of approaching violence but by the unnervingly disordered filmmaking technique, so far from the comparatively restrained (and at worst sedate) strategy of an Ari Aster or Robert Eggers: jumping, jittery cuts, leaping from detail to detail with paranoiac energy, as if searching for an exit; sudden zooms and pulls of the camera that unstick the characters and the viewer in space; layered sound design that leapt with unsettling ease between hushed, stark silences and sudden jolts of echoing laugher, shifting landscapes of whispers and sighs, muted moans, cries of protest or pain, threaded together by Thom Yorke’s alternately melancholy and hysterical score; the dark spell of the architecture, grand and totalitarian, drained of color and thick in shadow, winter light and stone slabs and endless mirrors and tall, forbidding portals. My stomach started to go into knots from the atmosphere alone. When the moment arrived—that moment being Olga’s destruction, of course—I experienced it as something akin to physical assault. I literally could not look at the screen. I covered my eyes and ears, and scrunched up in my chair, corporeally wracked with horror, shaking like a leaf; even twenty minutes after it was over my heart was beating like a jack rabbit’s; I actually needed to get up and go to the restroom to make sure I wasn’t going to throw up, and from that point on even the slightest suggestion of oncoming violence in the film was enough to make me almost unbearably tense.

No doubt my relative inexperience in the territory of cinematic violence, as well as the heavy anticipation I’d accumulated over the weeks prior to my viewing, contributed to the intensity of that first viewing. Subsequent viewings haven’t had the same effect, of course; even when I next saw the film—only two days later, that Tuesday—I’d already acclimated to the shocks. But the intensity of that initial experience has forever after lingered, like an afterimage under the surface of the eye, over every rewatch; and even if the queasy, bodily terror of the first viewing has mostly faded, its harrowing and spellbinding physicality has not. Physicality is sort of the soul of Suspiria, the thing that holds it together, makes it tick—or perhaps beat. What makes Suspiria so harrowing and effective is that no matter how lost it gets in its own abstractions, the raw materiality of these bodies—bodies in constant motion, creative and destructive, in pleasure or in unspeakable anguish—is always in extreme, unsettling focus. There’s no distance. It sinks deep under your skin.

Seeing Suspiria at that age was also the first time in quite a long time (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and It’s Such a Beautiful Day were probably the most major highlights prior to it) that I’d experienced simple awe of filmmaking. I remember my mouth hanging open in astonishment during the Volk scene: I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The editing, the music, the costumes, the lighting, and the dancing all worked in synchrony to hold me utterly rapt and amazed. It felt genuinely occult, real black magic. And it was that wonder, which I carried out of the movie theater, that led me to really start investigating cinema history and movies outside of the mainstream, in search of another experience like that. Suspiria provided ample guidance on that front, too: in all of his interviews about the film, director Guadagnino kept mentioning this “Rainer Werner Fassbinder” character, a filmmaker I’d never heard of before. It’s because of Suspiria that I started watching his films, which is now perhaps the most important body of filmmaking to me in the world. And I can also see the use of the enclosed, symmetrical, aestheticized fortress of the dance school as the site of sadistic fascist atrocity as having laid the groundwork for my truly bottomless love for Salò (in spite of Guadagnino’s comments, Suspiria feels much more an heir to Salò, The Night Porter, The Damned, and other Italian antifascist films of the seventies than to Fassbinder’s cinema). I really owe a lot to this movie, more than I can ever pay back, because it opened the doors to so much great cinema for me that I might otherwise have taken years to get around to, because it established the grounds for what is most handily (if pretentiously) termed my “cinephilia”.

If this seems overly nostalgic or extratextual, let me hasten to make it clear that Suspiria still holds up for me as a film in and of itself. What charms me about it (and what seems to piss off others) is the fact that the filmmakers truly don’t seem to know what they’re doing half of the time. The actual basic through-line of this film is very, very simple: the witchcraft narrative allegorizes a seismic political conflict Germany was experiencing in the 1970s, with the witches symbolizing the fearsome fascist past, unaddressed and unaired, that lurked beneath a divided postwar nation, and Susie symbolizing the Baader-Meinhof group (and by extension a younger generation of Germans in general), which attempted to violently purge this past through acts of terror. That’s very clear, it’s almost too simple, and yet Guadagnino is seemingly incapable of telling the story straight. Not content to steady himself on this perfectly suitable thematic thread, he decides to toss in semi-incoherent gender politics, citations from Jung and Freud, abstract dream sequences, Tilda Swinton in drag as a Holocaust survivor, several nonculminating subplots, indulgent period detail, intertitles, visual evocations of everything from Balthus’ perverse paintings of nude preteen girls to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Thom Yorke songs, and lugubrious meditations on motherhood, historical guilt, psychiatry, artistic creation, male power, religion, sexuality, and cycles of political violence. These traits, which for some render the film unbearable (and admittedly the very awkward, muddled, “male writer” stabs at a sort of feminism do come close to being offensive, even for me), are part of what keep it so engaging and rich for me even after so many viewings (and there have been many!). The sense that even the director was sort of in the dark about all this only makes it more fun. It is overwhelming, baroque, swollen till bursting, often failed but never less than ambitious (much more ambitious than virtually any other horror film of the last decade), and totally in earnest. That’s so rare to see in something of this scale, something that could have been an easy cash-in, cynically made and cheap, heartless. It’s sincere and it’s beautiful. In this arid contemporary landscape, I’m incredibly thankful for it. And perhaps more importantly, I vibe with it: it feels perfectly aligned with my sensibilities, atmospheric and emotional and technical, in a way few other films even come close to. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it shaped my sensibilities—that’s much closer to the truth. It’s become part of my DNA. This is one of the movies that comprises who I am.

I love Suspiria 2018 to no end and I’ll forever stand by it. Snuggling up to its cold embrace of misery and abjection will always be one of my greatest comforts. The gorgeously icy and compositionally variable cinematography, the wonderful performances (not only Johnson, Swinton, and Goth but Angela Winkler too!), the propulsive editing, the staggering production design, the awkward dialogue, the horror, the cruelty, the sorrow, the ecstasy, the goddamn dancing—all endlessly compelling, rewarding, and enjoyable. It’s a personal touchstone in both film and life, bliss from start to finish. I am she, bitches!

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