Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Mother, may I?


Stuffed, maybe overstuffed, with ideas and symbols and bids at meaning, the most important thing is that Suspiria does terrible things to you, but you realize you really like it.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich
With Dakota Johnson (Susie Bannion), Elena Fokina (Olga), Mia Goth (Sara), Chloe Grace Moretz (Patricia), Jessica Harper (Anke), Tilda Swinton (Madame Blance, Dr. Klemperer, et al), and Malgorzata Bela (Mrs. Bannion)

Spoiler alert: mild—well, severe for Suspiria '77, but come on now

Though not every single thing I have to say about Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria 2018 is a superlative, or even nice, there's one thing to get out right away: it's a great remake.  It's a great remake in the sense that it's a significantly better movie than Dario Argento's 1977 Suspiria, a film I have always liked and never quite loved the way a man's supposed to, if he enjoys horror movies and Technicolor and progressive rock, and, as I mention at least once a week, I do indeed enjoy all three of those things.  But when I say it's better, I don't mean "this one makes more sense" or "this one has so much as a hazy notion of actually being about something," though both these statements are true; I mean it does for me what everyone always says Suspiria '77 does for them, when they're trying to be hip and with-it and arrogating to Suspiria '77 the status of a masterpiece because, at one point, long before Juno, it actually was faintly obscure.

Well, what they say about Suspiria '77 is that it translates into cinematic form the essence of supernatural horror, which is the breakdown of reality; essentially, the feeling of being inside a nightmare.  Suspiria '77 does that (or attempts to do that, and partway succeeds) with inscrutability, with three-strip wollops of color and bizarro set design that looks like it could collapse at any moment, with a repetitive Goblin score that's as apt to give you a headache as anything else, and with a smattering of artful violence that would be more artful still if the special effects representing it were more plausible.  Suspiria '18, meanwhile, takes on the same goal (and damn near all-the-way succeeds), but it does it with a dream logic populated by Jungian phantoms and Russelesque freakouts that's been manipulated into madness by editing that feels like it's attacking you more than it's telling a story, with razor-sharp, silvery (almost monochromatic) cinematrography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and hulking, oppressively-linear Art Deco production design from Indal Weinberg, with a Thom Yorke score that tends toward the insidious rather than the overwhelming (sometimes just dropping into nothing but an infernal metronome) and violent modern dance choreography by Damien Jalet, and with, presumably, the best fuckin' horror movie kills of 2018, including one of the best horror movie kills of all time.

So it's a lot of movie, is Suspiria '18, and this is objectively true, given it's two and a half hours long.  Certainly that was what put me off it the most, because no horror movie ought to be two and a half hours long (hell, The Shining isn't two and a half hours long), but especially a horror movie like this—Suspiria isn't a character drama.  Wait: Suspiria '18 is a character drama.  Just not about a character.

Unfortunately, though, I've gotten ahead of myself: Suspiria '18 is a great remake, also, because it does what all remakes should do, but usually don't, which is take the basic idea of the original and do entirely its own thing with it, so that, in a sense, there's no point in comparing it to Suspiria '77 at all.  So let's just call it Suspiria from here on in.

Of course, the basic idea which the two films share is that, in 1977, a young American hopeful named Suzy Bannion (now Susie, I imagine purely for differentiation's sake) makes her way to a prestigious German dance academy founded many years ago by one Helena Markos, which ultimately reveals itself to her—after either an hour and fifteen minutes of increasingly strange happenings, or two hours and ten, depending—as the secret palace of a coven of witches.  The screenplay by David Kajganich expects that if you're coming to see the European art horror movie called Suspiria you know this already, and aims, in this regard, for suspense and slow, curdled dread rather than mystery and confusion, letting you know within the first half hour that all the insane stories about witches we find one of the Markos Academy's leading lights, Patricia, inarticulately babbling to her psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer, are, in their essentials, entirely true.

Patricia disappears, and when Susie arrives, she is quickly groomed by the academy's dance mistress, Madame Blanc, to take her place—though Susie is, of course, not privy to the charged and unsettling discussions the academy's faculty have about her fate, which we infer has something to do with the transmigration of an old and evil soul (or, perhaps, something even worse).  Nor does Susie seem to be aware of the power struggle her arrival has occasioned within the coven between Blanc and her partisans, and the followers of the unseen Markos.

As for Klemperer (this being Suspiria's biggest agglomeration to the original's narrative, since the original's psychiatrist was barely extant at all, a bland-ass exposition device and five-minute runtime padder), our good doctor can't help but notice his patient stopped keeping appointments not long after she showed him a diary full of claims of witchcraft and murder, and resolves to start investigating whatever the hell it is that's happening at the Markos Academy, which is obviously not going to turn out well for him.

As for everything else, the relocation of the setting from Friedberg to West Berlin means that it seems like a good half-hour of Suspiria is about the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction and the Nazi legacy.  There's a line in the great comedy Orange County that's applicable to so many works of art, but I don't think it's ever been this apropos.  It's when the protagonist's girlfriend goes to a college party, and an intellectual type starts hitting on her—unsuccessfully, for reasons that will soon become apparent—by explaining his idea for a movie: "It's about vampires... ostensibly.  But underneath, it's actually about the reunification of Germany.  But it's funny."

Technically this is not a subplot, though I've seen it described this way because it feels like one: what looks like period texture keeps coming up until it's almost as much part of the weave as anything else.  And I think that, mostly, it is just period texture, though it's also thematic texture, and Suspiria almost makes a point of it, or at least gestures in the direction of a half-dozen points simultaneously: sins of the past that cannot be expiated, and can only be forgotten (or the sinners purged); the burden of women (Suspiria's cast being almost exclusively female, up to and including the woman who plays Klemperer under crazy-good old age prosthetics) in a monstrously patriarchal society; of the burden of women in a monstrously matriarchal society that Kajganich made up, but reflects the harm that women can do to each other in the world, and the suspicion that even in the absence of men's oppression, some things would never change; the old eating the young, and the young sticking in their throats; the death of beauty and the meaninglessness of art in a world defined by the Holocaust and a Cold War; and, in the end, the possibility of rebirth.  Not a pleasant or painless prospect.  To be born never is.

Alternatively, Suspiria is indulgent fucking twaddle, and one could make just about as strong a case.  It really wants to take on everything, and certainly mentions almost everything, sometimes finding nothing there to actually refer to: this movie, that has dream analysis burned into its very bones and which takes on the cast of some kind of radical feminism—hell, this horror movie, even—is just shockingly asexual, to the extent that a flashback to Susie's unhappy attempt at masturbating in a closet that ends when her Mennonite mother catches and punishes her, or the various feints towards lesbian stirrings that go absolutely nowhere, almost feel like loose threads that needed to be snipped.  Then again, maybe asexuality (in the biological sense) is the point. The default of life, of course, is female. The feminine, by contrast, seems more like a traditional, or even aesthetic, choice: something close to the same movie could be made about men and warlocks, and you probably wouldn't even need to change anything besides, maybe, the sport.  Of course, Suspiria with a football team and a quarterback building his success on the mystical suffering of others against the backdrop of, say, Watergate, probably wouldn't feel like it had something primal and dangerous lurking beneath it, nor have nearly the same kind of resonance.

After all, one of the most important differences between the Suspirias is that this Suspiria is extremely invested in its setting, and not just the German Autumn, but the dance academy it spends most of its time in.  Maybe more than anything else, it is interested in dance itself—Dario Argento sure as hell wasn't, or at least he couldn't afford to be—and since there's no word for a movie that has production numbers but very little in the way of what you'd prefer to call songs, I suppose I'd have to call it a "musical" regardless, and an unnervingly successful one.  The particular brand of modern dance that Blanc inflicts upon her willing children is brutish, assaultive, almost inhuman in its reduction of dancers to geometric shapes and writhing objects—and that's before we even get to the bitchin' magical death parts.  It shows the physical resilience dance requires—there are so many films that don't, for good reason, and even when you see the ballet or a live musical, you see it from afar, with performers who have trained their whole lives to not let you see their weakness—and the music of Suspiria, when there is even music, is so quiet and buried in the sound mix, you only feel that it was even present at all when it's absent, thanks to a cross-cut or some other reason, so what you actually hear is the sounds of feet impacting the ground, legs squeaking across the floor, the panting breaths—the sighs, if you must—of the exertion.  This it shows literally.  What it shows, by grueling metaphor, is what else dance, or any striving, takes—to crush every rival, take anything good about their technique, and leave the husk.  That's when Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano's unhinged construction of their film takes center stage for the first time: a monstrously affecting cross-cut abomination that slices its way from Susie's training for the top spot to Blanc's former favorite Olga, now bound to one another by a spell, where every move Susie makes twists Olga's body till she isn't even a person anymore, just a heap of broken meat and a pool of urine and vomit nearby.  And it takes forever.  And it is amazing.  And, worst of all, she's not even quite dead yet.

But Suspiria is a lot of movie, I said, and it is so many other things, though that editing pattern—that violent, knifing pattern, if it even is a "pattern," punched up even further by a lithe, serpentine, hungry camera—is our partner through them all, the cutting within scenes and between scenes just never feeling right; in fact, it's fair to say that the trial of Olga is one of the film's most conventional moments, made strange and wrong by being an island of frenzied but almost-normal cross-cutting set against a world that otherwise feels like it's always off by several split-seconds, like an unchangeable past that never seems like it's going to quite get through the present to the future.

In its center, I feel safe saying, is the story of symbols it tells: an early shot puts the word "Suspiria" on a sign in a subway station, which is Guadagnino's way of yelling at you to learn to read—I mean, literally read words—so that when a book by Carl Jung is displayed for a tenth of a second, it sticks with you as an idea and interpretive lens for the movie you're watching.  It's Fruedian, too, and its core characters (one of whom is, fittingly, almost never seen, and only in the end confronted) map onto each discredited psychiatrist's respective map of the human soul, which is why it's so important that Tilda Swinton plays three people in this movie, including Madame Blanc and Klemperer, and all of them inordinately well in her usual off-center manner (even though, I'll confess, I assumed her third character was just a tremendously gross puppet).  Blanc is an intriguing combination of sterness and kindness; Klemperer is a doddering old fool whose wife went missing in the war, though how he never knew, and whose loss in some way motivates his zeal in trying to do right by Patricia.  Perhaps he deserves kindness, too; in the end, he is granted a boon, but I do not know if it was a kindness.

Suspiria says too much about too many things, maybe, while saying very little about any person.  It's the most schematic story I think you could possibly spend 152 minutes telling.  Susie is referred to once as an empty vessel, and I don't know if there's a single scene that feels like it departs from Guadagnino and Kajganich's motifs and messages, which is as much to say that feels like it's especially human.  Perhaps Swinton manages it; Dakota Johnson never does.  This doesn't mean she's not an excellent Susie: Johnson's a body, allowing her looks alone to draw you in (and Guadagnino knows she looks amazing; the idea that this film is without male gaze is insane to me, yet I've seen women say so; as Blanc remarks, dance is a language spoken with the body, and these are female bodies, so there's no possible avoidance of it). But Johnson can turn from mere yearning blankness to true enigma in a blink.  Of course, the most common image in Suspiria is a mirror.  You see yourself in it, that is, you see what you want to see.

Suspiria is a fatalist thing, and despite being trapped by its cutting and its themes and heavy, choking atmosphere, it knows you know what "Mater Suspiriorum" means—that you probably have a better idea than anyone in the movie, in fact—though you do not know what precise form she will take.  Suspiria is better when it's Jungian, with an ego looking for her Self, helped and hindered by her Persona, her Animus, her Shadow.  There are mothers everywhere.  But you know who brings you into the world.  Campbell was inspired by Jung, and there's a dark heroine's journey to everything that happens here, and it ends with a mystical and personal apocalypse in the color of blood, the first time in over two hours that this Argento remake cleaves to anything resembling an Argento style.  (Though, in truth, it's a thick red filter that feels more like that part in Kill Bill where they threatened Tarantino with an NC-17 so he turned to high-contrast black-and-white; Suspiria's finale is amazing and asburd, but let's not make more of this choice than what I suspect it is.)  But, if it is the end of a world we see here, it's the beginning of a new one, too, albeit not at all necessarily a better one.  "Why are people so ready to think the worst is over?"

I don't know if Suspiria is relevant, if it actually grapples with anything, but it feels like it.  It's not intellectual, not really.  It's all affect, despite the chill that never leaves it, which is a good thing for a horror movie to be: as far as horror in 2018 goes, it's what Hereditary would've been if Hereditary hadn't been a boring by-the-numbers story of demonic possession that confused sheer volume with a fierce central performance and actual emotional content.  Suspiria is quiet, until it's not.  It wants to leave you cold and shivering and exposed.  Mostly, it works.  And when it works, it works.

Score: 9/10, and it could only possibly go up


  1. I would totally watch that football/Watergate movie though.

    1. I would, too, though it would be silly.

      Dance, though, that's some good old-fashioned pagan magic, and given things like the cult of Cybele, I'm surprised more movies don't fuse dance and horror.