Written as part of the annual Girl Week blogathon hosted by Dell on Movies. Head on over to Dell's site and check out the other entries!
The year is 1977. Susie Bannion has run away from her Mennonite home in Ohio to join the Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin. Susie has long been obsessed with the dancing of the company, and its lead choreographer, Madame Blanc - she has studied the company's performances on videos from her local library, and even traveled against her parents wishes to New York City to see the company perform live. She was out of place in Ohio, feeling the need to express herself through the act of dance. Thankfully for her there is a spot open in the Markos Company, as one of the dancers, Patricia, vanished under mysterious circumstances (the rumor is that she was working with an activist anarchist group). More and more mysterious things start to happen around Susie, for you see, this dance company is run by a coven of witches.
Yes, in outline form, the plot of Suspiria is the same as the justly famed Dario Argento film of the same name, but this Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino, couldn't be further from that film. Where the original was a Technicolor wondershow, assaulting the audience with the most garish reds and blues you ever did see, the 2018 version has a mostly muted color palette, greyed out in the shades of winter in Berlin. Where the plot of the original sort of tumbles out in the form of a fever dream, the plot here is very linear, and extended to two hours and forty minutes, divided into six acts and an epilogue. And most importantly, whereas the original only cared about the dance academy as a setting, this one puts the dance front and center. And with that, it also throws the politics of the time and place into sharp relief.
Perhaps all of those things put you off. Perhaps that all makes Guadagnino's Suspiria sound like a chore, a piece of homework, a pretentious piece of claptrap wearing the clothes of horror. Maybe that's all true. But Suspiria got me right in the chest. This is a horror film about a dancer's body so scarily accurate that it feels as though it were made entirely by dancers.
"When you dance the dance of another," Madame Blanc says, "you make yourself in the image of its creator." That's true. Watch any random episode of So You Think You Can Dance and you're likely to see a choreographer imposing their way of moving on a dancer unused to it. With each new piece you are a part of, you have to re-find your center, re-teach your body how to move, re-set your mind to the feeling of the new dance. It's why some dancers stay with certain companies for decades on end - when you find a choreographer whose movement vocabulary is close to your own, you stick with them, and they with you.
But dancing is also backbreaking work. When you're really in the moment, giving yourself over completely to the throes of the music and the choreography, injuries can happen if you're not careful. Anything from minor injuries like blisters, to injuries that will cause a huge set-back like a dislocated shoulder, to major career-ending injuries like a broken tail bone. There is one sequence early on in Suspiria of just such bone-shattering cruelty that I was thrown all the way back in my seat, eyes riveted to the screen, completely unable to look away. This is what it can be like to put your body through torture, day in and day out, to "dance the dance of another." It is one of the most horrifying, difficult scenes I have ever had to watch. And I loved every second of it - the bravura performance and makeup effects, the downright nasty editing, the blood-curdling sound design... it's stunning. And the film is only just getting started.
Suspiria does feel exactly as long as it is - which is to say, very - but I was never once bored or unengaged with what was happening. I was completely involved with the characters and story the entire time. Part of this is due to the actors - Dakota Johnson continues to be a perfect vessel for audiences to project themselves onto, Tilda Swinton nails the mixture of imperiousness and groundedness that marks most great minds of modern dance, and Mia Goth is so easy to latch onto and root for as perhaps the most innocent (and thus, doomed) girl in the company. But equal compliments must be paid to Luca Guadagnino, who keeps thinking of new ways to make uninteresting plot scenes interesting. One noteworthy scene in the middle of the film is a long take of the coven members preparing and sitting down to a pot luck dinner, while a group conversation of theirs takes place on the soundtrack, clearly taking place after the dinner has finished. We never quite see who is speaking, but we don't need to. The soundscape of the film is filled with moments like this, where our ears are filled with diagetic sound that comes from an unseen source, or certain bodily exertions - breaths, laughter, cracking bones - that sound a lot louder than they should. It's some of the most stunning sound work of the year, and Thom Yorke's hushed, droning score complements it perfectly.
David Kajganich's screenplay is something of a marvel, weaving the supernatural elements into a story of different kinds of womanhood and motherhood, of how a ruined society treats women both before and after it falls. A key moment finds Madame Blanc saying that dance can never again be beautiful - a rebuke of the Third Reich's insistence that all art glorify the German nation and its people. And of course, the company's most famous piece is called "Volk," the German word for "people," and it is a violent, aggressive piece of choreography. The dancers pound on the floor and on their bodies, making the piece feel like a primal scream of femininity, perhaps its last.
In the background of everything, the period of Vergangenheitsbewältigung looms large. The process of the German people's reckoning with their culpability in World War II and the Holocaust echoes throughout the film, not only in the company's style of dance, but in the story of Patricia's psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in very convincing old man drag as "Lutz Ebersdorf"), who was separated from his presumed-dead wife during the war. When Patricia comes to him with her tales of a coven of witches at the dance academy, he is dismissive, believing she is talking instead of a rebellious political group who abide by a "constructed mythology." But as he reads her notes, and sees the academy for himself, and eventually becomes confronted with the horror of what happened to the women of his country while he watched and did nothing, he starts to believe that she may have been right.
It's a wholly unexpected thing to include in a remake of one of the most memorably violent films ever made, this melancholy story of national guilt being both weaponized and exorcised by women as best they can, but here we are in 2018, and a lot of these themes are more relevant than ever before. Guadagnino has taken the story of one girl's terror and transformed it into a tale of feminine power rising up from the ashes of a world destroyed by men, both those who abused power and those who watched and did nothing. It is a celebration of what women can achieve when they work together, and a condemnation of those who would seize and abuse power, no matter their gender. Despite its scenes of violence, Suspiria is an empowering film, reminding us of the vital importance of art, and how creation can be an act of rebellion. That a film this violent ends on a note of relative grace is a shocking glimpse of hope, however dimmed, however compromised, but still present. Hope that there is still compassion left, in even the darkest of souls.