Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is So Smart, It’s Stupid

Luca Guadagnino’s new film, Suspiria, is not a remake. This must be made absolutely clear. While Dario Argento’s Technicolor nightmare took place in a German dance academy, as Guadagnino’s does, that is where the resemblance between the two stories essentially ends. Argento’s film sets up an entire mythology about witches, their hidden existence, and their effect on the modern world. Guadagnino’s movie does far less in two and a half hours with that concept than Argento did in 98 minutes.

The new Suspiria, described in the opening credits as “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin,” attempts to cram multiple storylines than are comfortable into one movie, like a food service worker with depth perception problems trying to make a burrito. The year is 1977, and Suzie Bannion has arrived in Germany to audition for the famous Markos Dance Troupe, overseen by Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Suzie is from a Mennonite family in Ohio. She isn’t ready for the realities of Berlin. It is the time of the RAF, the Baader-Meinhof hijackings, and homemade bombs in the streets. Suzie auditions without music for some of the teachers, drawing the attention of Madam Blanc herself. Within three days, Suzie has moved into the troupe house, auditioned, gotten a spot on the team, and danced the lead part in a presentation for rehearsal.

In the meantime, we meet the elderly Dr. Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, a false name concocted for the androgynous Tilda Swinton beneath piles of prosthetics and stipple), a psychiatrist who is dealing with his own painful memories of the Berlin Wall being erected. He and his wife were separated between East and West; he never got over it. He gets pulled into the mystery of the dance troupe, whispered rumors of ancient witches known as the Three Mothers, and the stylized ritual that is modern ballet.

Things seem to be moving quickly, but in reality, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on here, and it keeps happening for 150 minutes. In another film, a good one, these plot elements that seem so wildly different would somehow tie together into a coherent, satisfying tale. But Suspiria raises questions with no intention of answering them and leaves the viewer hanging. What do ballet, magic, psychology, domestic terrorism, witchcraft, cigarettes, telepathy, female empowerment, little arms growing on big arms, the Berlin Wall, and a kaleidoscopic nebula that resembles nothing more than the Lights of Zetar have to do with each other? Not a damned thing. Did any of the story mean anything, or was it just a series of interesting pictures? Did writer David Kajganich throw textbooks at the script and hope some smarts stuck to it?

It doesn’t matter. Even if Suspiria is not as intelligent as it thinks it is, and wallows in its own garishness like a toddler playing in a feces-filled diaper, the case can always be made that the viewer just didn’t get it. It isn’t Suspiria that is stupid; it’s the audience that isn’t up to the intellectual task of deciphering it. In the respect that it will create conversations, Suspiria is a success. But a particularly rancid fart will also get people talking. Suspiria comes across as smug, smarmy, and stinky, a tiny shadow of the original movie that shares its name.

Thom Yorke’s soundtrack is quite good, even if the songs with vocals stand out like sore throats. His four-note idee fixe is effective and inspires dread. It’s not his fault that most of the instructors for the dance troupe look like Edna from The Incredibles, or that most of the dancers are only there to look good on the dance floor, baby. Yorke has finally created entrance, middle, and exit music for a film, and it would be an album worth buying if it were associated with anything else.

Let’s reiterate. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not a remake. There are no shot-for-shot recreations of famous set pieces. Jessica Harper, star of the original, shows up in a tiny part, or maybe she doesn’t. Her appearance could have been an illusion, brought about by witchcraft and Communism and repressed guilt over being a white male. It doesn’t even count as a call-back.

The new Suspiria, however, is blindingly, seat-squirmingly terrible. It’s a pompous mess of ideas that refuses to coalesce, like a molded salad that won’t stay together enough to hold asparagus and grapes in gelatinous suspension. Or, maybe Suspiria is a work of staggering genius, and anyone who dares dislike it is a bumpkin, capable of doing nothing but mumbling the lyrics to Toby Keith songs and complaining about the difficulty of universal remote controls.

Draw the lines. Let the discussions begin.

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