Freakout of female violence in ‘Suspiria’
Smeared in red and wrapped in woo-woo mystery, “Suspiria” is a fable of demonic possession. In storybook terms, its bad, bad trouble involves a young, outwardly naive American dancer, Susie (Dakota Johnson), whose tenure at an all-female school in Germany turns progressively strange. The other less interesting possession involves the Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who has taken a 1970s freakout from Dario Argento and turned it into a bloated fantasy of violently consuming female power. It’s the old vagina dentata scare show, this time fancied up with art-house pretensions.
With its garish color, canted angles and baroque violence, the first “Suspiria” is still adept at unsettling your equilibrium, which is fitting for a film that renders psychosis into visual style. (Among its most memorable elements is a fantastically creepy soundtrack, which turns music-box tinkling into a maddening refrain.) Argento’s vulgar expressionism must have appealed to Guadagnino. A cinematic sensualist, Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”) makes stories filled with volcanic emotions, pretty people and ravishing backdrops that — with color and light and technique — he imbues with a sumptuous tactility you almost reach for, as if to caress.
This time, he seems more interested in making you recoil while also saying Something. What precisely he wants to say amid all the carefully choreographed bloodletting and disembowelment chic is unclear, other than some women are beautiful and erotically beguiling but also mysterious and murderous. (It’s a story women know by heart and is dustier than even Argento’s shocker.) Also: Tilda Swinton can do — and wear — anything, including a long curtain of hair and a prosthetic penis. Mostly, the new “Suspiria” is an exercise in grindhouse genre, a seeming departure for a director whose work is usually, at times to its detriment, calibrated for art-house consumption.
Written by David Kajganich, the new “Suspiria” follows the general sweep of the first one, opening on a murky, stormy note. It’s 1977 (the year Argento’s film was released), and Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), an American who studies at the Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin, is having a meltdown. Fleeing to her therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, swaddled in latex and old-world gentlemen’s clothing), Patricia ominously babbles while she jumps around the shrink’s office and he dutifully scratches down his notes. She seems unhinged, rattled, and is soon conveniently gone from the scene, though only after leaving a bag and a notebook filled with cryptic musings.
The notebook becomes Klemperer’s way into the story; Susie begins ours when she arrives at the school; eventually these paths converge. Susie has landed at the school uninvited but dazzles one of its matrons, a choreographer, Madame Blanc (also Swinton), and is invited into the institution’s weird, sisterly ranks. Soon, Susie is giggling in the school’s corridors, peeking into its dark corners and dancing, flailing, twisting under Madame Blanc’s strict watch. Before you know it, one employee has slit her own throat, a student has danced until her bones have broken, and some matrons are guffawing while waving a sharp, shiny scythe in front of a man’s tender vitals.
So, you know, the usual, but with ostentatious chapter breaks and narrative padding, including some dead-end references both to 1970s German politics (cue the tear gas, riots and Baader-Meinhof mentions) and, more egregiously, to the Holocaust. These allusions don’t amount to anything and come off like futile, nonsensical bids to explain the German setting. The school faces the Berlin Wall, as Guadagnino repeatedly reminds us, to no particular end. Like the references to Germany’s violent politics in the 1970s and the nods at Susie’s Mennonite background (which emerges in puzzle-like flashbacks), the wall is strictly ornamental, an emblem of meaning by (hoped for) association.
As expected, almost everything and everyone looks casually perfect, which is what you would expect from Guadagnino. It’s certainly pleasurable to watch the wild-eyed Patricia scuttle through the art-directed clutter of Klemperer’s office and then pause to pick up a carefully placed Jung volume. It’s even more amusing to see Susie navigating the school’s funhouse interior, with its secretive mirrors and boxes-within-boxes design. The cast offers its own pleasures, especially Swinton (in her Madame Blanc role) and Johnson, a performer whose lightly breathy voice and low-key, almost affectless charisma can quickly turn unsettling, menacing. (She’d make a haunting Manson girl.)
As the first hour of “Suspiria” grinds into the second and beyond (the movie runs 152 minutes), it grows ever more distended and yet more hollow. Unlike Argento, who seemed content to deliver a nastily updated fairy tale in 90 or so minutes, Guadagnino continues casting about for meaning, which perhaps explains why he keeps adding more stuff, more mayhem, more dances. (The choreography is by Damien Jalet.) By the time the dancers gather for their culminating frolic in a show dubiously called Volk — “the people,” a loaded idea in German history — the movie has slid so far off the rails that even its final big bloody show, with its deli cuts and Busby Berkeley moves, can’t save it.