The new Suspiria is a mesmerizing reflection of our world
Watching Suspiria I was reminded of a quote from Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special in which he talks about society’s very public reckoning with abuse of power. He related the issues of today with immediate post-apartheid South Africa. The incredibly honest (and refreshingly fearless) comic stated the following:
“The end of apartheid should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn’t. The only reason it wasn’t is because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivized by that system, are not criminals. They are victims. The system itself must be tried. But... the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everyone says what they did. Tell them how you participated.”
Hmm. Interesting idea, eh? The reason I couldn’t escape the grasp of it during Suspiria is that this is the first film I can think of that goes one step beyond the mere recognition of rotten power structures, and into the realm of contending with them. Recognition is a thematic idea that has fueled the past 2-3 years of so much pop-cultural output. Be it a discussion of privilege, representation, or power dynamics, we’ve been taking amazing efforts as both consumers and creators to recognize flawed systems and try to find our place within them. But the question remains: Then what?
Personally, I dig the idea that Chappelle is putting forth. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all complicit in just about everything. Some more than others for sure, but no one escapes with full altruism intact. The systems which govern our world are so deeply entrenched in what we consider normalcy that there’s no such thing as a pure victim...but there’s also no such thing as a pure villain. Suspiria, a remake in name and the most basic concept only, begins with the mysterious power structure of the original film (a coven of witches running a ballet school) and makes it explicit. In doing so, this new version trades the mystery of the original film for an opportunity to contend with power structures head on. It’s difficult, troubling material which is sure to leave a lot of viewers upset (if they even pick up on the themes at all — this movie is a head trip to say the least). But for those willing to grapple with this behemoth of a horror flick — those willing to admit to the weaknesses of their own humanity when faced with acquisition of power — have the chance to indulge in a courtesy we so rarely offer to those who trespass against us: self-reflection.
The beautiful thing about this masterful work of Grand Guignol horror is that my reading of it will likely be extremely different from yours, and yours from someone else’s. Much like The Shining, this is one of those films so densely packed with details and ideas that just about every reading of it can be validated, and as times change, so too shall our readings of it.
The most basic plot description matches that of the source material. A young American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakotah Johnson) is accepted into the well-renowned Markos Dance Academy.
From there the plot begins to diverge.
Shortly before Susie’s arrival, a troubled student, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) abandons classes and tells her psychiatrist that the school is being run by a evil witches. Dr. Josef Klemperer is his name, and he immediately discounts Patricia’s story as the fantasies of an off-kilter woman. Patricia, not content to have her claims dismissed, leaves his office and disappears into the streets of Berlin. I should note that the streets are not the best place to be, as the film is set during the German Autumn of 1977. With Patricia mysteriously unaccounted for, Suzie is welcome to take her place in the academy, where the headmistress, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) takes an immediate liking to the ambitious new student. The thing is, Suzie is not a formally trained dancer. In fact, this is her first real taste of anything in life since this new iteration of the character comes from a Mennonite background. Even though she hasn’t so much as a beer in her bank of vices, her approach to dance is so raw and animalistic that the cabal of witches sees an opportunity to bring their magic into the modern era.
At the outset, Luca Guadagnino’s direction has a manic energy to it that seems almost jarring given such a bleak lens. Swift zooms, aggressive handheld pans, and no shortage of in-scene camera dexterity clashes with the wintery, bleak color palette. But as the film moves towards its truly unsettling, aggressively violent denouement, the filmmaking technique grows tighter and more classical. It’s as if Guadagnino wants juxtapose order and disorder at all times, keeping tone at polar odds with structure from beginning to end. Everything is designed to unsettle the viewer while also emptily assuring them that everything is just fine. What a wonderful parallel to what our characters experience. Suzy feels free from her life of religious bondage, but is this new freedom worth the price of her sanity? Is this new freedom just another form of restriction? The witches are looking to move forward with their craft, but clash over whether or the “old ways” are feasible in a rapidly changing world.
Also unsettling is the score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It’s a far cry from the angry, grimy (and excellent) score that Goblin provided for Argento’s original. In fact, much of it just sounds like Radiohead. Thom Yorke is a weird-ass dude, so I can’t think of anyone better to bring these chilling soundscapes to such a large, looming film. It’s a bit heavier on lyrics than the scores created by his bandmates (or by anyone really), but much like the music of Radiohead, it’s not always the content of the lyrics which brings the music value so much as it’s the feel of their melody. And when it comes to haunting vocal melodies, well, Yorke’s got the goods.
By the time the third act creeps up, those who haven’t already jumped ship (an understandable, but wholly wrong notion) will be challenged once again to stick around. There is no handholding to speak of in David Kajganich’s killer script, and by the end, when things go truly mad, Suspiria almost defies you to be entertained by it. It is actively trying to push the viewer away; to make them sick to their stomach. At this point, you are on your own. But perhaps that’s for the best. Like I said before, this film is going to give to the viewer exactly what they put into it.
Dakota Johnson, as always, gives an incredible performance. Her career may be young, but this is going to be tough to top. I suspect she’s up to the task. Tilda Swinton, surprising no one, hypnotizes for every moment she’s on screen. Her Madame Blanc has a much softer touch than her cinematic forbear, but it suits the concerns of the film. Since the supernatural elements of 2018’s Suspiria are explicitly recognized from the outset, as are the general intentions of the coven, there’s no need for Swinton to play into ambiguity. To a degree (and I’ll avoid too much detail here), she’s as much at threat of supernatural harm as anyone else, despite being the character with the most supernatural sway.
Suspiria is many things. It’s a treatise on creative acts being a form of spell-casting for both creators and consumers. It’s an exploration of the female body as both a source of incredible strength and a target for exploitation. It’s a rumination on the destructive nature of a muse/creator relationship; how the scales tip when a muse steadfastly refuses to be destroyed or–perhaps even more concerning–welcomes the destruction as a creative act of her own. It’s a product of the Me Too era (“women tell you the truth and you tell them they’re delusional,” admonishes one disbelieved female), but not one interested in assigning villain/victim roles so much as it wants to explore how these roles manifest to begin with. Heck, one of the three male characters is called upon to witness victimization and rebirth during an expressly feminine ritual, and he simply can’t bring himself to look, representing the silent complicity of those unwilling to except cruel realities.
It’s also an impressive dance film. Step Up can step off.
There’s a lot going on, and this is my invitation for you to let me know what you think. I am interested in perspectives other than my own with this one. There’s just so much material to work with that a single viewing simply can’t do it justice. Alas, that’s all I have to go on until it comes out. I’m curious as to what others pick up on or read into that I may have missed. I’m dying to hear what baggage others brought to the film and what they subsequently received from it as a result.
And whatever it is to you, there’s one thing that Suspiria is to everyone: a stunningly crafted horror classic.
As for the stunt casting which you may or may not be aware of (and I won’t spoil here, in case you really don’t want to know): don’t worry about it. It has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. In fact, I was glad that I knew about the stunt going into the movie. Otherwise, I’d have been distracted by the strange prosthetic makeup on the character in question. That said, it is bold for Suspiria to be cast almost entirely by women while being written and directed by men. In a time of gendered polarization of so many social issues, this duality in production removes needless gendering of the film’s exploration of power abuse, making for a more effective statement regarding the corruptibility of human beings, without abandoning the urgently true notion that women bear the brunt of said imbalances more often than not.
I’ll leave with this, another quote from Dave Chappelle regarding the risks that come with speaking truth to power:
“You got all the bad guys scared, and that’s good. But the minute they’re not scared anymore, it will get worse than it was before. Fear does not make a lasting peace.”
Suspiria opens in Philly theaters today.