Here I went and thought I had Luca Guadagnino pegged. And why wouldn’t I? Over the course of his three last features (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me By Your Name ), he’d carved out a niche for himself as one of our most pleasurable hedonists, crafting the kind of sun-soaked European summer-scapes that you wanted to crawl into and never leave. (Sure, bad things could happen there, but those villas!) There’s not much in those films that suggests moving towards a blood-spewing fever dream like his new Suspiria remake, a picture that’s bonkers even by the already nutty standards of the phrase “Suspiria remake.”
David Kajganich’s script maintains the late ‘70s setting of Dario Argento’s 1977 original — leans into it, in fact, by placing the story into the context of that era in Germany with news coverage of the Red Army Faction’s “German Autumn” (not overdone, just happening in the background, as these things usually are). The broad strokes of the story remain the same: the quintessentially innocent American, Susie (Dakota Johnson, smashing), joins a prestigious Berlin dance academy, and what initially seems like a heady mixture of disorientation and culture shock slowly reveals something very sinister in the school’s past — and present.
Not that there’s anything particularly straightforward about the execution. Guadagnino seems hell-bent on unsettling his audience; less than five minutes in, I scrawled, “What the hell is happening?” in my notes, not because the scene in front of me was particularly oblique, but because the close-ups were so oddly framed, and the edits were so peculiarly timed. But that’s Guadagnino’s aesthetic M.O., all the way through; he’s operating on a trance-like wavelength, more beholden to nightmare logic than conventional storytelling.
He also burrows deeply, and often unsettlingly, into the tactile elements of dance, the pleasure and the pain. The slapping and heavy breathing of this particular form becomes, in a way, its own music, borderline assaultive, in ways that turn into straight-up body horror in one key, unforgettable intercutting of dance and death. The big climactic dance performance, frankly, is staged less like a recital than a murder, a metaphor that soon becomes horribly, memorably literal. You may have heard, and even despaired, that Guadagnino had jettisoned the original film’s signature color saturation — those blown-out, near-hallucinogenic reds and greens. Well, good news: he wasn’t eschewing them. He was just saving them.
Straight-up national treasure Dakota Johnson is electrifying in the leading role, somehow maintaining the tricky balance of playing both sympathetic innocence and offhand eroticism; Kajganich writes her some wild turns, many of them new to this remake, and she nails every single one of them. Joining the A Bigger Splash reunion is Tilda Swinton, who sharply captures the hard-driving toughness of a specific type of arts instructor, the kind that turns her students’ desire for acceptance and praise into something like a cult of personality.
Not all of Guadagnino’s experiments work. Suspiria ’18 clocks in at damn near an hour longer than Argento’s original, and there are a fair number of watch-checking moments; he gets the mood right, but the tempo is occasionally off. And much of that running time is spent on the new and not altogether successful character of an investigative therapist, snooping around the school to figure out what happened to a former client. This thread pays off eventually (mostly), but feels primarily like a vehicle for a cutesy casting gimmick.
But these are minor complaints. Guadagnino keeps the viewer wildly off-balance with a variety of tools: acts of random, sudden violence; a genuinely upsetting sound design (those crunching bones, yikes); and Susie’s visions, disturbing mixtures of flashback, dream, and nightmare. Most effectively, he uses (particularly early on) a whole palate of visual tricks — those disorienting close-ups, shock cuts, oblique angles, wobbly pans and zooms — all to better convey how out of sorts, and out of place, she is in this world.
Suspiria is a movie you can’t take you eyes off of, even when it doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. It’s a feast of gobsmacking imagery and stomach-churning discomfort, its wild shifts held aloft by the skill of his cast and the confidence of its director. “Dance,” the students are told near its conclusion. “Keep dancing. It’s beautiful.” And it is.
Suspiria is out Friday in New York and L.A. It expands nationwide November 2.