Dakota Johnson in Suspiria.
Dakota Johnson looks like she has a secret. Her expression is often opaque, but her eyes are cat-like: teasing, and intelligent. The actress wields her inscrutability like a weapon; in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy it’s a survival tactic that allows her to evade the chokehold grip of a pretty-boy narcissist. In A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015), it’s a means of coquetry. In The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), in which she appears for just over three minutes, she plays it for laughs, animating Aaron Sorkin’s script and undercutting an otherwise bro-y college campus conquest with sardonic humor.
Daughter of actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and granddaughter to Tippi Hedren, the 29-year-old comes from a line of gifted screen performers. All four demonstrate craft, but only Dakota could be described as withholding.
In Suspiria, Johnson’s second collaboration with Guadagnino, her Susie Bannion is also an enigmatic creation. Set in 1977, the year Dario Argento’s original was made, the film is a mystery about young American dancer who joins a coven-like (or, perhaps convent-like) dance academy in Germany, only to discover that it that its pupils and their teachers are hiding a sinister secret. This remake moves the action from Freiburg to Berlin, splitting Susie’s story into six acts and an epilogue, and neutering Argento’s baroque reds to something creamier and more sedate. Students at the Markos Dance Academy dress in a Prada palette of burgundy and beige; the snow lining the streets of Berlin has turned mushroom grey.
Johnson’s Susie is a redheaded Mennonite from Ohio, all long braid and luminous skin. Her All-American wholesomeness is at odds with the European severity that surrounds her (Mia Goth’s Sara is sophisticated, Tilda Swinton’s matriarch Madame Blanc spectral; it’s difficult to imagine either on a farm). This is not the first time Johnson has been required to telegraph naivety; in How to Be Single (Christian Ditter, 2016), she played the gawky Alice, a serial monogamist thrust into New York City’s cutthroat singles market. However, Alice proves to be a fast learner, her darting eyes displaying the speed with which she absorbs and adjusts to the standards of casual dating set by bartender beau and perpetual bachelor Tom (Anders Holm). Johnson’s apparent innocence is a tantalizing honeytrap, but her on-screen suitors (romantic or otherwise) are frequently surprised to find that her characters have their wits about them.
The same might be said of her Anastasia Steele, first realized in 50 Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015). Based on E.L. James’ bestselling adult novels, the trilogy was supposed to be a grown-up riff on Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight, but the franchise flopped, with critics despairing about the lack of sexual chemistry between the leads, as well as the film’s “vanilla” portrayal of the BDSM community. Yet Johnson’s performance is finely tuned; though Anastasia is sexually submissive, her interpretation of the character holds all of the cards. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s clichéd dialogue is meek on the page, but Johnson’s witty performance offers a deadpan approach to dealing with Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) brattish whims. The film may not work as an erotic thriller, but as a satirical relationship drama about consent, conformity and capitalism, it’s fascinating. VICE’s Jason Bailey praised Johnson’s “sly line readings, perfectly timed responses, and nonplussed expressions,” arguing that they lent a “merriment” to the otherwise dour franchise. The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote of the joy in “the utter disconnection between Johnson’s canny self-awareness and Jamie Dornan’s earnest commitment to this goofy-ass movie.” In an interview with Vogue, Johnson defends the character, describing her as “hyper-intelligent, hyper-sexual, very tough and very loving,” and explaining that she tried to consciously amplify each of her clashing aspects. As Suspiria’s Madame Blanc puts it, “there is a will.”
“The head, the spine, the sex—what do you want to be?” asks Blanc, asking Susie to choose the locus of her power as a dancer. Susie claims she’d like to be the hands, but really, she’s the face. If Swinton’s authority is in the timbre of her voice, Johnson’s is visible in the way Susie’s smile twists into a flattered smirk—the way her eyes flash with ambition, and hunger. She challenges Blanc, proposing a modification. “The resistance is more emphatic, right?” she says of the air-bound pliés in the choreography.
On the dance floor, Susie might as well be an alien. Choreographed by Belgian artist Damien Jalet, the film’s movement sequences swap ballet for the hard angles of contemporary dance. Light-footed across the tightrope between control and abandon, there’s something instinctual about the way Susie moves. Convulsing and juddering with purpose, it’s as though she’s both in her body and surrendering it to an outside force. The movement hums with a ritualistic energy that feels dangerous. Which, of course it is. The film’s most gruesome set-piece cuts Susie’s performance with another student’s, her body hurled into floor-to-ceiling mirrors, limbs twisting against their will. Bones snap; the skin bruises; she vomits, and urinates. Dance is a vessel for both worship, and witchcraft. Either that, or it’s her prerogative to “break the nose of every beautiful thing.”
It’s no coincidence that Susie sits in splits while her classmates remain cross-legged. When asked to improvise freely, she moves to an all-fours position, spine flexing like an animal primed to spring towards its prey. She tosses her hair; the breath is sharp and sensual. Though the film is ambivalent about sex, its charged dance sequences build a nebulous mood of slippery eroticism, anchored by Johnson’s physicality.
In isolation, these dance sequences are mesmerizing in their nonverbal grace. The rest of the film can’t quite match their elegance; the dialogue is effortful—overly eager to communicate its progressive politics (“When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them, you tell them they have delusions!” exclaims a female character to psychoanalyst Dr. Josef Klemperer). Still, Johnson’s performance is a rod of clarity. She is, as Blanc puts it, “a strike of lightning, a bolt of love.”