How much importance do we really put on stylishness? The Italian director Luca Guadagino’s semi-official “trilogy of desire”—I Am Love, A Bigger Splash (apt title), and Call Me By Your Name—sloshed with the stuff, deploying voracious camera moves to tell its stories of craving and beauty, connected by a nebulous theme and a mission of tackling the sublime through superficial means; with each film, his filmmaking and pictorial eye seemed to become more confident and subtle. These movies made it easy to categorize Guadagino (who made his debut back in 1999, with the film-school-ish The Protagonists) as an evolving sensualist who used appetites as metaphors; his characters hankered for ukha soup and picked at salt-baked fish, but we got that they were really wanting for something more.
The nature of that something could be wishy-washy, but Guadagnino’s growing talent for ekphrastic editing and camera movement was clear. What’s more, his characters were super-rich (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) or at least privileged; compared to our own unfulfillments, theirs looked like a vacation package. Swimming pools symbolized their temptations; designer eyewear, their warped gaze. Not that this lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-fashionable stuff should be seen as a knock; even Antonioni, the master modernist of ennui, recognized that, in addition to having more time, characters with money also have more empty space to work with. Besides, given the choice between watching someone prepare and eat a sumptuous Mediterranean meal and watching them cook Barilla pasta with a crusty jar of Ragù, most of us would choose the former. One shouldn’t presume that these movies were stoking our vicarious interest by accident; ditto the correspondence between the camera’s own appetites and the appetites of the characters.
I’ll admit that I’m semi-partial to the stuff myself. I Am Love struck me as both excessively flavored and undercooked, but A Bigger Splash won me over with its multi-pronged attack of moves, angles, jet-set head games, and mid-period Rolling Stones tracks. And Call Me By Your Name, his most fêted film, was quite an accomplishment, not least for finding a way to internalize the excesses of previous two films; the self-imposed restriction of shooting the entire movie with a single regular Cooke lens seemed to make a difference.
But what to make of the apparent about-face of Suspiria, Guadagnino’s loose remake of the classic Dario Argento Euro-horror fairytale? The villas, susurrating olive orchards, and humid creaminess that have become part of Guadagnino’s m.o. have been replaced by the austere concrete and dirty herringbone parquet of late 1970s West Berlin, the days of Baader-Meinhof and the Wall; the tingly feelings and taste sensations, by heebie-jeebies and overall bad vibes. But Guadagnino’s characters are still dancers (literally, in this case), lost in their movements like old cartoon characters floating on the smell trail of a forbidden apple pie.
Suspiria is a long, funky movie—152 minutes long to be exact, which is an hour longer than the original. Some of the character names are the same, and the setting is still a mysterious dance school that’s actually a front for a witches’ coven devoted to the old god Mater Suspiriorum, “the mother of sighs.” But otherwise, it’s its own thing, indebted less to the theatrics and gruesome bed-time-story logic of Argento than to the movies Nicolas Roeg was making around the same time, confounding mosaics of predestination and psychoanalysis. (The subtitle of Roeg’s sick-puppyish Art Garfunkel vehicle Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession wouldn’t make a bad description for Guadagnino’s own career project.) It’s a movie where most of the characters are liminal figures, mid-phase between identities, It is packed with doors, mirrors, ceremonies, rehearsals, shared secrets, and make-up, suggesting commonalities between the backstage world and the supernatural through collage.
The filmmaking is a hodgepodge, too. It’s eerie and self-indulgent by turns, and appears bent on giving the audience the opposite of both the Argento original (by avoiding saturated color) and the more ascetic Call Me By Your Name Name, employing every focal length imaginable as it plays fast and loose with the space-warping effects of extreme wide-angle lenses, zooms, and split diopters. One might accuse it of having more motifs and metaphors than measurable depth, but that seems to be intentional; it replaces the perplexing, surface-y pleasures of the original—the screaming colors, the Goblin score, the Disneyland-after-dark atmosphere—with its own brand of maximalism and mystification.
Here, red-haired Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a virginal American of Ohio Mennonite extraction, comes to West Berlin to pursue her dream of joining the Markos dance academy. (A small change that is more important than it seems: While the original, which was set in the picturesque Black Forest city of Freiburg im Breisgau, introduced its “Suzy” Bannion arriving from an infernal airport, the new movie’s protagonist first appears in the U-Bahn subway.) But dreams always have hidden, contradictory meanings. So does dance, as exemplified by its traditional uses in ritual magic: It is both exorcism and possession.
To those double meanings and vice-versas—the Black Mass and the warm-up ritual, art and the spell it casts, the individual and the group, the contradiction of kinetics and symbolism that makes a dance—one might also add political theater and the city of Berlin. Unlike Argento’s film, the Guadagnino version (scripted by David Kajganich, who also penned A Bigger Splash and developed the recent AMC series The Terror) reveals the true purpose of the dance academy early on. We learn that choreography is the witches’ dark magic, channeled and replenished by young bodies willing to “dance the dance of another,” as the chain-smoking Madame Blanc—one of three characters played by Guadagnino regular Tilda Swinton—puts it. But while the striking dance sequences (choreographed by Damien Jalet) are one of the obvious focal points of the film, Suspiria also devotes an inordinate amount of screen time to the comings and goings of a doddering old therapist named Jozef Klemperer (Swinton again).
That this character is a Josef (okay, Jozef) K. is a tad on-the-nose. But then Guadagnino and Kajganich also give him a line that sounds an awful lot like a famous quote from Jean Cocteau—mind you, in a film that links mirrors to art and death. “Delusion,” says Klemperer, “is the lie that tells the truth.” Cocteau used this paradoxical phrase, “the lie that tells the truth,” to explain what it meant to be an artist. (Not coincidentally, it was widely quoted by other artists, and is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Pablo Picasso.) But I get the sense that, like so many of the more memorable turns-of-phrase in Kajganich’s script, it is really directed at the film itself.
Perhaps Suspiria is best understood through its excesses, because the Klemperer subplot is just one of several. Another involves the internecine squabbling of the coven, which Madame Blanc is struggling to take over from its grotesquely mutated founder, Helena Markos (also Swinton). Suspiria likens the witches to an underground political cell, though it’s unclear whether it’s more anti-fascist or crypto-fascists. Most likely, it’s something of both. Suspiria is its own occult ceremony, almost to the point of self-consciousness: invoking and quoting earlier filmmakers (not just Argento, Cocteau, and Roeg, but also Fassbinder) and earlier times, filled with fetish objects, broken up into chapters for no reason except to make the proceedings seem even more esoteric. In its all-female milieu, one actor plays both sides of a conflict and the male interloper, too.
These narrative bends and squiggles have something to do with transformation, psychic thresholds, the performance of gender, the dancer and the magician's ability to be two things at once. Watching the film, I was struck by the fact that its Berlin, which is almost as much of a studio creation as the lavish art nouveau and art deco architecture of Argento’s movie, is really a labyrinth of doors, the most obvious being the grand entrance of the Markos academy and the secret door to its underground complex, hidden behind a wall of mirrors—portals within portals. There is also the closed door behind which Klemperer meets with his clients, the doors of hotel rooms and dancers’ dorms, and last but not least, the passport checkpoint at the Berlin Wall. Not to mention the doors in Susie's own dreams.
Argento’s film had a thing for memorably sinister entranceways, too; the doorway of the palatial dance academy is the most famous example, though I’ve always been partial to the close-up of an automatic door’s motor snipping like a guillotine in the opening scene. But here, one can’t help but wonder what’s behind actually them—and not in a what-comes-next sort of way. Swinton’s triple casting, after all, is just one part of an elaborate artistic disguise that re-conjures various Guadagnino staples as omens and objects of horror: his dance sequences (Splash and Name both have memorable ones), his almost narcissistic obsession with tricky mirror shots, all those big scenes staged around tables at mealtime. The Markos academy is as a fishbowl, not unlike the rarified digs of the trilogy movies.
Questions of identity abound: Is Helena Markos the real Mater Suspiriorum? Was the missing student Patricia Hingle really a member of the militant Red Army Faction? One can go on listing all the possible metaphors the slip in and out of the plot and mise-en-scène: forged Aryan identity papers; the climactic performance of the Markos troupe’s signature piece, Volk, with dancers draped in red knots; the likening of choreography to the policed movement of people through cities and across borders; the roleplaying of sisterhood and motherhood by both coven and troupe. If Guadagnino’s movie is like a dance or a ritual, it’s because it hangs evocatively between meanings and implications. Like any performance, it can only exist within a particular space: a labyrinth with many doors, but no exits.