Set in Berlin during the fall of 1977, a prominent dance company’s lead dancer disappears just in time for aspiring dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) to arrive in the hopes of claiming a coveted spot within the troupe. She quickly catches the eye of the artistic director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), and is brought under her wing. But the art of the dance is really the perfect cover for spellcasting, and the faculty behind the dance company are really a coven of witches. As darkness swirls and evil rises, will Susie and her friends wake from their nightmare in time?
Save for core mythology elements, it’s clear from the outset that this take on Dario Argento’s revered classic is a very, very different beast. The vivid color of Argento’s vision is traded for the drab; a Berlin cast in gray skies and washed in neutral colors. Goblin’s intense score is swapped out for the languid, moody score by Thom Yorke. It’s one that perfectly encapsulates director Luca Guadagnino’s vision and tone for this deliberate descent into madness.
Told in six parts plus an epilogue, Guadagnino is in no hurry to unravel this tale. At a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Suspiria dives head first into a deep well of nightmarish imagery, short bursts of shocking horror, confusing mythology, and a whole lot of political discord that’s tough to unpack. This iteration of Suspiria is heavily political in just about every aspect. From the social politics within the coven, to Dr. Jozef Klemperer’s (Swinton in age makeup but credited as Lutz Ebersorf) guilt-ridden World War II past, to the state of revolutionary unrest in the city. Much attention is spent on the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, an actual historic event that occurred on October 13, 1977, and its repercussions. Guadagnino focuses on all of this in depth to really nail home his metaphor for revolution and transference of power.
Though Susie is the focal point of the story, she’s not quite the protagonist. The character itself is bland and one-note; this Susie is lost in her ambition and easily manipulated by Madame Blanc, and that’s all we ever get to know about her. It’s purposeful to an extent; this Susie is merely the center that brings together all of the other moving parts of the narrative. Dr. Klemperer was the psychiatrist that was helping the company’s previous lead dancer and seeks to prevent another disappearance. Madame Blanc seeks to groom Susie for something darker yet to come, and fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) might finally be waking up to the evil within the company. This is really Swinton’s movie, and she shines the brightest. She plays not two, but three different characters in the film, and all so very different and fully realized.
This coven is much more overt in their witchcraft, casting twisted, bloodthirsty spells with cackling glee. There are fantastic moments of brutal horror throughout, building up to an epic climax, and it’s unafraid to go to some truly weird places. The downside, though, is that the slow build pace means that the horror can be spaced a bit far apart. For some, the glorious carnage presented will be enough to sit through a very heady tale that refuses to hold hands, and others will absolutely hate it.
Guadagnino mirrors Susie in that he’s crafted a new iteration of Suspiria steeped in lofty ambition. This world is overly complex and drawn out, and one of the main running plotlines contributes nothing to the overall narrative when all is said and done. For as artful and gorgeous as most of the film is, some of the more horrific moments feel like a step back in terms of camera work and vfx. Even still, the haunting atmosphere and the teasing mysteries of the Satanic depths of this coven casts a hypnotic spell that keeps you engrossed throughout. Suspiria succeeds as an artistic experience, but from a narrative standpoint, it’s a bit of a mess. Beautiful as it is confusing, Guadagnino’s vision is guaranteed to be polarizing.