*** WARNING SPOILERS BELOW ***
Luca Guadagnino's loose remake of Suspiria seems - on the surface - to be exactly my type of film. There's a brooding score, an understated color palette, and the director's obvious desire to link what's happening behind the doors of the Helena Markos Dance Company to larger ideas. It should be an Overthinker's dream. Instead, Suspiria felt oddly disjointed and empty; a film driven by lofty ideas that may have been perfectly clear in the director's mind, but that fail to penetrate the viewer. It’s also…dare I say it…boring.
Suspiria opens in 1977 which, as almost every single review of the film will tell you, is the year that Dario Argento’s original film hit theaters. Susie Bannion (played by Dakota Johnson) has arrived in a Berlin to audition for the Helena Markos Dance Company. The film tells us that she’s left her strict Mennonite background to come to study in Berlin, and she appears initially to be every bit as unsure as anyone would be coming into such a new and different situation. But as in the original, there's a strange darkness that hangs over the company, and Susie's arrival seems to shake up something that's been lying in wait.
In these early moments of the film we also meet Dr. Josef Klemperer, a psychiatrist who is treating Patricia, a young woman who has just left the company. She tells Klemperer that it’s run by a coven of witches. At first thinking that Patricia's rants are those of a madwoman, Klemperer eventually comes around to believing her story after she mysteriously disappears. We also learn that Berlin is caught in the grips of the radical leftist group, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (also known as the Red Faction Army). Guadagnino makes it clear that the group's role in Germany is somehow important to the film, or is perhaps meant to serve as an allegorical cousin to what's happening in the halls at Helena Markos.
Guadagnino’s efforts to give the film more meaning by developing these two additional side stories - the one about the Baader-Meinhof, and the other about the loss of Dr. Klemperer’s wife during WWII - leave us with a film that’s narratively muddled and overly long. It’s difficult to understand Guadagnino’s decision here and hard to determine what, if anything, he’s trying to say. How is Susie’s power linked to the rise of Baader-Meinhof? What does the doctor’s wife have anything to do with the coven of witches? What bearing does the political climate of 1977 Berlin have on any of this? Unfortunately, none of the answers are quite clear.
To make use of a terrible analogy (because…why not?), Suspiria is like that soup you make when you have only bits and pieces of things left in the fridge that you want to use up, and you just throw everything in with the hope that it results in something unique and delicious. The film is, ostensibly, about shifts of power and fascism and gender dynamics/expectations and guilt and upheaval of the status quo and false hope and female rage and many many other things. But none of these ideas are fully developed, and both the characters and story feel like empty vessels waiting for a meaning to be ascribed to them that’s never given.
Suspiria isn’t all bad. It’s most successful when the focus of the film is on Susie’s transformation. A dance scene early on in the story, in which her sharp movements appear to lead to the demise of another dancer, is fascinating and truly unsettling. And there’s something frighteningly beautiful about the end of the film when Susie finally reveals her true identity as Mother Suspiria and displays the full extent of her power. It’s also the first time we get a blast of color (most of the film is shot in a bland, vaguely beige color palette), a violent red that carpets the entire screen. The performances are fantastic, especially Tilda Swinton who I honestly feel like I could watch watch paint dry and be entertained, and Thom Yorke’s score (mostly) fits beautifully.
It’s become clear to me that Suspiria is one of those films where your mileage may vary. Seeing opinions roll in has been interesting, and it’s clear that the film is extremely polarizing. There are some viewers, judging by a few of the glowing reviews that the film’s received, who will be able to pull meaning out of the film. But as overthinking as I am, I just couldn’t find any.