SUSPIRIA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Moretz Grace, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Angela Winkler, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Ingrid Caven, Renee Soutendijk, Clementine Houdart.

Not since Black Swan has the world of ballet been so sinister and laced with menace.

Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, and Olivia Ancona in Suspiria (2018)Suspiria is set in Berlin, a divided city, in the 1970s. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, from the Fifty Shades trilogy, etc) is an ambitious American ballet dancer who arrives in Berlin keen to win a spot at the prestigious Helena Markos Dance Academy. Her audition is successful. Because another young dancer named Patricia (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) has mysteriously vanished, the school’s director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, a regular collaborator with Guadagnino) agrees to give her a chance to prove herself. Susie is given the lead role in the company’s upcoming signature work Volk. Susie befriends another dance in Sara (Mia Goth, from A Cure For Wellness, etc). But there are whispers of strange goings on at the academy and Susie soon finds herself swept up in some fairly troubling and deadly situations.

Meanwhile a group of grotesque women (played by former arthouse stars such as Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven and Renée Soutendijk) sit around a kitchen table hatching their nasty plots. And Sara sets out to find out what happened to Patricia, confiding her fears to psychiatrist Dr Klemperer who also suspects the truth about the ballet academy’s dark heart.

Luca Guadagnino’s ghoulish, garish and ultraviolent remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic horror about a coven of witches running a ballet school in Berlin is something of a bloated and ugly mess that will polarise audiences. This is something of a passion project for the filmmaker who fell in love with Argento’s original many years earlier.

This remake has been written by David Kajganich, who collaborated with Guadagnino on A Bigger Splash, and is a far cry from his previous film, the gay coming of age romance Call Me By Your Name. For some reason, Guadagnino and Kajganich have added an extra hour to the running time for no real benefit. They explore issues of faith, trauma, and the rise of feminism, but they also work in additional themes of the Nazi past, the Holocaust and collective guilt, and terrorism. This adds a sense of unrest that permeates the material.

They have also added a new parallel subplot centring around an elderly professor named Josef Klemperer (played by an unrecognisable Swinton, buried under layers of prosthetic makeup and credited under the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf) who is still haunted by the death of his wife.

The climax is over the top and bonkers, mixing an erotic and wonderfully choreographed dance sequence with some body horror and gore. The sequence has also been bathed in red by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me By Your Name, etc), which is symbolic of blood and madness. The batshit crazy and frenzied bonkers finale reminded me of two other films I’ve seen this year – the recent Nicolas Cage film Mandy and Aronofksy’s recent Mother!

The film is something of a sensory overload. Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom also channel the aesthetic of many key German filmmakers, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders, who began to make their mark in the turbulent period of the 70s. Guadagnino’s colour scheme here is the opposite of the more colourful palette of Argento’s original and it suitably captures the dreariness of the Berlin setting. The discordant, atmospheric and unsettling score comes from Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke.

This is a fairly physical role for Johnson, who continues to impress with strong performances since her breakthrough in the sadomasochistic Fifty Shades trilogy. She is reunited with Guadagnino who directed her in A Bigger Splash, and here he puts her through some punishing and erotic dance routines arranged by Belgian-French choreographer Daniel Jalet. She apparently spent two years to practice and prepare for the physicality of the role. Swinton, in her fifth collaboration with Guadagnino, is formidable here in a dual role and she oozes menace. The ensemble supporting cast also includes real life dancer Elena Fokina as a dancer named Olga, who suffers a horrific fate, and Jessica Harper (who starred in the 1977 original) has a brief cameo as Klemperer’s wife.

I must admit that the bloated 152-minute running time and the numerous twists and turns of the complex plot eventually did my head in. This remake of Suspiria is a demanding film and not for the faint hearted. It is not easy to sit through. It will certainly divide audiences.

★☆

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