Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth
F.I.V.E. star rating:
F. Form: 5 / 5 [style, structure, technique]
I. Impression: 5 / 5 [impact, relevance, provocation]
V. Vision: 5 / 5 [audacity, innovation, perspective]
E. Experience: 5 / 5 [enjoyment, engagement, delight]
TOTAL: 100 / 100
To say that one does not understand SUSPIRIA is like saying that one does not understand dance. Nobody really understands because it is not a medium for understanding. When we watch someone dance, they are telling us something directly - communicating something that isn’t specific but we recognise immediately. When a body watches a body, a transferrence occurs. When we watch someone spin, our own body feels the same sensation. When they stretch their leg out, we feel the same pull. Much weaker than actually doing the action ourselves of course, but that energy still runs through our muscles and bones like electricity (or magic).
SUSPIRIA functions in the same way - built not for understanding but for sensation. This new film by Italian director Luca Guadagnino is a rebirth of Dario Argento’s horror classic of the same name. While I loved the original, this version does something truly extraordinary in that it furthers the mythology into deeper and darker terrains. The original is a feast for the eyes and ears, becoming famous for its vivid colour palette and its unusual score by Goblin. Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA, on the other hand, is a total body experience with sequences designed for intense physical reactions.
Sequences like the double dance scenes where Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) performs a piece choreographed by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) as another dancer named Olga (Elena Fokina) gets trapped in another room and is sorcerously partnered with Susie. Olga’s body is contorted in bone-bending shapes, unlocking her joints, unseating her jaw and ragdolling Olga around the room in exquisite and agonising synchronicity with Susie’s performance. The choreography is beautiful but unnerving, taking the idea of dance as a way of performing spells.
It appears ritualistic, the movements are quick and repetitive with Susie’s arms shooting up in perpendicular angles and her hands clawing and caressing as if she was summoning something from the air. The sound design adds to the agony so that even if you look away - and I did many times - it’s impossible to escape its cursed clasp. The crunch and crack of bone makes its own kind of music and the sighs and inhales of the dancer sound like hushed incantations. And that’s only describing the dance scenes. Guadagnino takes it a step further, submerging the film in a boiling cauldron of history, trauma and memory.
The movie is set in 1977 Berlin, the same time the Baader Meinhof group, a far left militant organisation, set off what is called the “German Autumn”, a month and a half of kidnappings, plane hijackings and murder. The Berlin Wall still stands and is prominently placed just outside the dance school so its monolithic presence is felt even in interior shots. There is also a subplot involving an elderly therapist who lost his wife during the Holocaust. These details may preoccupy some audience members in trying to understand how everything “fits” and be tempted to tack on allegory or metaphor to the narrative.
But these details aren’t meant to be understood in a neat, easily digestible way. Nothing during this time and place made any sense so why should the movie attempt to make it make sense. Instead, these histories add texture. We sense its weight and the high political tension makes our hands sweat. Guadagnino doesn’t want us to understand, he wants us to feel the stories on our skin. I’ve seen this twice and both times afterwards, I noticed marks on my skin. I unknowingly scratched and squeezed my arms and thighs from the intensity of the experience. The witches have left their mark.