Updated: Apr 27
Written by: Lizett Montiel
Alas, the most anticipated movie of the year (at least for me). When I learned about Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA “remake” directed by Luca Guadagnino, my heart was pounding with excitement after watching the 1977 4K restoration on the big screen and Guadagnino's more-than-successful run during awards season for Call Me by Your Name. Little details started popping up: a cast co-starring Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth (to name a few), original score by Thom Yorke, contemporary dance choreography. I mean, could this get any better? Was this a surreal dream come true or was this too ambitious to live up to a cult classic?
Filmmakers stated that the film was not a remake of the original but a homage to Argento's work. Having the 1977 version as a reference for comparison or understanding of the film is NOT necessary; however, diving into the original storyline written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi might grow into an obsession (trust me on this) when reading and revisiting Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy.
The film is aesthetically the opposite of its predecessor's festive colors. The pale, almost gray hue palettes set the mood as we get a glimpse into West Berlin during a divided Cold War Germany. Set in wintertime, cooler tones are dominant with the exception of the dreams, dance sequences and ultimately the gore scenes, where (you guessed it) RED is the foreshadowing and vibrant color that bring Giallo to the forefront. There are evident visual allusions to Bauhaus in architectural style on its locations and German New Wave style as inspiration in cinematography and camera work at its grainy millimetric splendor. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who had already worked with Guadagnino, translates realism in camera shots with slow and quick zooms that subtly switch into surrealism during the dreams and fast-paced dance sequences filled with intensity and visceral emotions.
When it comes to chameleonic performances, we know Tilda Swinton is on top. She not only co-stars as Madame Blanc; the director and lead choreographer of the Markos Dance Company, she also plays the psychotherapist Josef Klemperer, an elderly man unrecognizable between heavy prosthetics and makeup FX. This might be just me, but if you really focus on the voice, you just might be able to tell it’s her. And as if it weren't enough on Tilda's plate, she also plays the dance academy head witch Helena Markos; who has been alive for centuries and, regardless of her decaying health, remains as the matriarch of the coven -- needless to describe how this looks in physical appearance. Possible award nominations/wins?
The leading role Dakota Johnson plays is suitable considering her past commercial work: that of a timid, mousy character undergoing a sort of transformation process, serving as an instrument to the coven, resulting in a darker and erotic final form. Susie Bannon from rural Ohio, implied to come from a Mennonite family, is less experienced than her dance peers but quickly gets Madame Blanc's attention through her breath-like flowing movement. Johnson does seem like a dancer in her physique: the warmup and explosive dance movements were spot on. A shy fangirl who confesses her admiration to Blanc after witnessing the Markos Company several times in New York City. The connection between Susie and Blanc develops into a telekinetic, intuitive communication and trust between these two, which seems less evil than the coven's intentions.
Even though the main plot revolves around this special connection, there is another storyline concerning the dance academy. Psychotherapist Josef Klemperer, who treats Patricia played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is drawn to the Academy after his patient's strange behavior and disappearance. The journal Patricia leaves behind is filled with vast information regarding the matriarchy of the coven, including detailed drawings of how space and time in choreography is used for ritualistic purposes. These drawings resemble Rudolph Laban's Labanotation system and curiously, the main dance sequence titled “Volk” (translates to “people”), is a very interesting connection to Dance History and Nazi Germany. Klemperer's past is latent, as he revisits an old house he used to live in with his estranged wife Anke – portrayed by a short cameo by Jessica Harper -- who may or may not be alive after trying to flee the country during the Holocaust. Sara, played by Mia Goth, is Patricia's former classmate who befriends Susie, her role, although relevant to the plot, lacks presence and is easily forgettable.
Dance makes the film. The witches have a dance academy used to fit the coven's purposes which consists of basically killing through movement. There had to be elements of this film strongly rooted in contemporary dance, which, as a former dancer myself, I can't express enough how much I loved. The dance movement in Germany reflects its hostile social and political atmosphere. Expressionist Dance of Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch's Tanztheater, specifically The Rite of Spring and her personification seen in Tilda's performance as Madame Blanc, with a long hair ponytail and cigarette in hand, is just like Martha Graham references. Damien Jalet, lead choreographer of the dance sequences, really captures such spellbinding uniformity in the dance troupe through prompted improvisation and contortion-based movements. Olga’s dance scene creates a supernatural illusion (big kudos to professional dancer Elena Fokina during this scene) through wardrobe design and the dancers performing with little-to-no clothes in a vulnerable and virgin-like aspect that clashes with the vibrant red ropes.
There is blood, lots of blood, exposed intestines, and chaos, and yelling. The “Sabbath” scene is not for the faint of heart. If you are not a fan of gore, Giallo, slasher films, or any horror movie whatsoever, this might not be for you. A witchcraft sacrificial ritual, cathartic, and essential to the film's resolution, awakens Mother Suspiriorum. However, it is unclear if Dakota Johnson's transmutation connects by the end of the film. It is somewhat confusing, not of a dense and strong character, to what should compose a matriarch.
There are inside peeks of the coven and its supernatural abilities from a nonchalant perspective, which I enjoyed in contrast to its predecessor's originally vague and mysterious plot. David Kajganich writes from the eyes of the coven and their witchcraft practices made through dance, while he highlights we're in 1977. The witches have minor but intriguing roles, leaving room for possible prequels/sequels. Dialogue is kept simple due to dance movement being the major component. I didn't mind the German History references; although it can be distracting from the plot. There is coexistence.
And finally, Thom Yorke's score. The eerie synth-based sounds escape the enclosed walls of the academy spreading into the streets of Berlin, haunting and building up in sonic force, especially in “Volk.” The wide and sustained ambient chords seem endless, even though we do hear Yorke's melodic voice in a couple of the tracks. Goblin can be king of progressive rock, but Thom Yorke experiments with dark-infused compositions that resemble those of Wendy Carlos and John Carpenter.
Overall, the film is worth watching in theaters if you are up for a good audiovisual performance in all its senses, even more if you are into dance, theater or any kind of experimental film and artwork. I recommend some reading on dance history, and let us know if you get obsessed with finding out more on the Three Mothers Trilogy. Would you like Luca Guadagnino to elaborate more on these? Don't mind if I do!