‘Suspiria’: What’s Love Got To Do With It? (A Lot)

This review contains spoilers for the Luca Guadagnino “reimagining” of ‘Suspiria,’ currently in limited release.

“Every movie I make is a step inside my teenage dreams, and ‘Suspiria’ is the most remarkably precise teenage megalomaniac dream I could have had. I saw the poster when I was 11 and then I saw the film when I was 14, and it hit me hard. I immediately started to dream about making my own version of it.” [1]

We bandy about the terms ‘passion project’ and ‘labour of love’ a lot, but few modern projects, especially in horror, embody that spirit more than Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. Guadagnino loves the Argento original so much that he squeezes it to the point of bursting. And burst, it does. It’s messy, brutal (and brutalist), and it loves drama, but all of it is borne from what is clearly a deep, enduring love for the 1977 Suspiria.

Like that one Aronofsky movie about mothers and motherhood (I forget the title), this is an another entry into Luca Guadagnino’s oeuvre of films that deal with the special brand of despair that only love, in this case a mother’s love, is capable of producing. Author Claudia Dey says, in her recent essay “Mothers As Makers of Death,” that “[w]hen a woman becomes a mother, a set of changes is set off within her; the most altering is that she, as if under a spell, loses her autonomy of mind.” Suspiria 2018 is, in a sense, about mothers as vessels, and how a mother allows herself to be torn apart from the inside out by the creature inside her. She allows this because of her intense, unconditional, self-sacrificing love for that creature. So do the Mothers here in Suspiria, and so does Guadagnino absorb the original Suspiria, a film he clearly adores, and allows the inner guts of that film to spill forth into this one.

In terms of remakes, I think that while Guadagnino’s version is one in the practical sense, it’s more like the Werner Herzog reimagining of Bad Lieutenant (compared to the Abel Ferrara original), or perhaps the two film versions of John Ajvide Lindqvst’s Let The Right One In than anything else. It takes the backdrop and a few general themes, and imposes new ideas, fresh breadth, into it. Guadagnino has absorbed Argento’s film on such a molecular level that he’s able to manipulate it as easily as Susie manipulates her victims through dance. In much the way that each adaptation of, say, a Shakespeare play further builds up the mythology and legend of the original work, so is Guadagnino doing this with the original Argento. He doesn’t want you to forget that movie, he is practically begging for you to revisit and love it.

Because if you love something, why would you choose to make a thing that replaces it? Guadagnino doesn’t want you to stop watching Argento’s Suspiria (quarterly, like I do); he wants to expand its scope, to learn, alongside the audience, about and experience the interior lives and loves of its principal characters. He wants you to love Mother Suspirium, and the coven (or at least the idea of the coven as conceived by the Mothers, before being corrupted) in precisely the way he does. And, in Suspiria, as in all of Guadagnino’s films, love is messy and complicated and hurtful and sometimes it just plain doesn’t work.

Part of the inevitable difficulty in unpacking Guadagnino’s Suspiria with Argento’s original in mind will be the fact that the filmmaker seems set on recapturing the power and agency from its lead that was missing in Argento’s film, and this is a fundamental, structural change from the 1977 film. No longer is Susie Bannion the wide-eyed final girl, flitting from one grotesque setup to the next. Dakota Johnson’s Susie has confidence, a sureness in her abilities that I’d be proud for my daughters to embody, though I’ll probably wait until they’re at least six before I show them the bloody orgies in this film, where multiple people are exquisitely, and somehow artfully, disemboweled. Susie comes into her own at around the halfway point of the movie, but even before that, she’s not one to be fucked with, and the power she ultimately allows to consume her is with her from the first few frames. It’s a credit to Johnson, an actor I’d never really paid much attention to in her prior work, that she can transform the character in such a liberating way, in a film that’s so constrained in others.

Sisterhood is important in this new Suspiria. With surprisingly few exceptions, the women (and the cast is almost entirely women) of the Markos Dance Academy are fiercely supportive of one another. Susie’s fellow dancers are always there to literally prop her up or to encourage her. Even Madame Blanc’s growing maternal love for Susie is a turning point for the film and a radical departure from the original. As a whole, the Academy feels like a phalanx against the forces of fascism, patriarchy, and religion (all of which are explicitly derided and ridiculed here) which are barking at its gates. It’s when the rogue members of the coven begins to go against this ideal, devouring it’s young, that things start to go south.

All of this is not to say that Suspiria 2018 is without problems. Though heartrending, beautifully acted, and sweet, the backdrop of the Holocaust love story is clumsy, and feels like a too-long setup for a joke (though no part of this is actually a joke, of course) that ultimately falls flat. The film takes an awfully long time to establish a theme of the abuse of power, by fascists, by the coven, even by psychoanalysts over their patients, and that time could be better spent elsewhere, or excised completely. Few aspects of Dr. Josef Klemperer’s (Swinton, under heavy prosthetics) framing story seem vital, though a romance between two of Guadagnino’s muses; Swinton, the actor he’s used time and time again, and Jessica Harper, the actor that inspired his journey, isn’t exactly unwelcome. At best, it’s a largely aimless delivery system for a couple of ideas that don’t need their own subplot, or perhaps just an excuse to put even more of Tilda Swinton onscreen.

The result is a too-rich dessert served in a too-large portion. Suspiria 2018 is bathed in layer after layer of flavours, textures, and forms, and is not something that’s easily digested, at least not in one sitting. But, and this is where my opinion diverts from the one that my colleague and pal Jeffery Martin put forth last week, I have mad respect for Guadagnino’s uncompromising vision here. I’ll always root for the guy that crams way too much foot into the ol’ ballet slipper than the one who leaves too much room to breathe, especially when each aspect of it is so exquisitely and painstakingly crafted. My dude warned you, long before the film’s release, that he was not interested in a remake, but a re-imagining, and I think that if you let go of the idea that the new Suspiria is, or should be, treading closely in the footsteps of Argento’s masterpiece, there is so much to love here, warts and all. With it’s many diversions and dalliances around its brutalist heart, Guadagnino has meticulously torn open the original film, crawled inside, and burst forth with his own visions, aspirations, and fears. If that’s not love, that very real, enduring kind of love, I don’t know what is.

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