“How did it feel to dance Volk before the one who made it?” famed choreographer Madame Blanc asks new student Susie early into Luca Guadagnino’s spellbinding Suspiria. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) has just watched Susie (Dakota Johnson) perform the piece that threw the Helena Markos Dance Company artistic director onto planetary fame. And Susie did not just excel at the task—she took the material to a whole new level. Watching Luca Guadagnino tackle Dario Argento’s genre classic 41 years later, the master-disciple exchange struck me as eerily fitting, as did the wide-eyed look in Swinton’s face—that terrifying moment she understands—as we do, with her—that the young ballerina has something no one else does.
Comparisons between Argento’s original and Guadagnino’s take are likely to be at the cornerstone of the future discourse around Suspiria, but while such spot-the-differences exercises are vital, writing off Guadagnino’s horror as a remake feels somewhat misguided. Suspiria does not, in any simplistic way, build on a previous work, for that would presuppose the existence of a shared structure, a common ground which the new take either mirrors or departs from. Guadagnino does a lot more than that. His Suspiria does not restore a timeless classic—it conjures up its own thing, a bacchanalian tour de force that’s as terrifying as it is viciously magnetic.
The ruptures play out structurally and visually. Of course, Suspiria still follows preternaturally talented Susie as she lands a spot at a world-famous dancing company engulfed in dark secrets, but the film's title card promises a different narrative and setting. A collection of “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” Suspiria catapults Susie into a 1977 capital terrorized by the Baader-Meinhof Group and harsh police repression: bombs explode overnight, terrorists hijack planes, and the youth take to the streets. Perceptively, Guadagnino situates the Helena Markos Dance Company opposite the Berlin Wall, as a world of turmoil physically entraps the young ballerinas into an insular and beguilingly safe haven. Berlin is divided, but in David Kajganich’s script, so are the teachers-witches, split into supporters of Madame Blanc versus supreme witch Mother Markos’ disciples—Blancites and Markosites struggling to find a new uber-talented ballerina to sacrifice in order to keep the academy running.
Entry point into the riot of horror and magic is doctor Jozef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), a psychiatrist who starts taking a closer look at the dance company’s mysteries after one of his patients and Blanc’s protégés disappears. It’s a fortunate choice: introduced as a beacon of rationality eager to dissect the “constructed mythology” crafted by “deluded” dancers, by the time Suspiria’s nightmarish dreamscape spirals out of control, Klemperer’s plunge into madness is a faithful companion to the audience’s own disorienting trip.
But even Klemperer plays a minor role in what remains a universe whose terrifying wonder neither men nor science are equipped to grasp. The ineffable beauty of Madame Blanc’s choreographies defies gravity—so much so that when Susie is asked to jump higher than her slim body would allow her, Swinton has to cast a spell and pour energy into Johnson’s veins. Choreographed by Damien Jalet (the French and Belgian Artist behind the Olivier-winning show “Babel(words)”), dances proceed like orgasmic outbursts of raw energy and violence to be marveled, watched and rewound ad infinitum. Yet, far from grinding the storytelling to a halt, the choreographies do contribute to push the narrative forward, merging into Guadagnino’s macabre vision in a telepathic game tying ballerinas and teachers together. Point-of-views, zoom-ins and 360-degree camera spins all add to Suspiria immersive, multi-sensorial experience—but it is Markus Stemler’s outstanding sound design that puts the gripping feeling over the top, the cracking of bones reverberating like shots inside ballrooms.
Bodies dance, flourish, and break—very literally—as Suspiria seesaws from moments of ineffable beauty to revoltingly morbid details. Shot by Call Me By Your Name’s cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Guadagnino’s Markos Company is a far cry from the super saturated and lurid looks of Argento’s set. Painted with a palette that merges grays with browns and rust blues, the whole building (and city) come aesthetically closest to Fassbinder’s works, while the M. C. Escher-inspired trompe l’oeils of Argento’s version are sacrificed for a location that retains the brutalist vibe of the Cold War fractured capital.
“I live in Berlin now!” says Ohio-native Susie, and in Dakota Johnson’s luminous face the expat’s joy sounds convincing—all the more remarkably so considering how quickly her beguilingly naive attitude fades out, leading to an orgiastic and gruesome finale to which Guadagnino adds an unexpected plot twist. Johnson is a force of nature as Susie: if the sensual, primal aura of her dancing was instructed by Jalet, the overwhelming ardor with which she brings it to life is very much her own making. Overt bloodshed aside—and there is plenty of that—there are moments when Suspiria baffles for its veering into an unexpectedly touching, melodramatic terrain. Amplified by Thom Yorke’s original score, if not a 360-degree genre bending turn, Suspiria’s empathetic vein is unsettlingly powerful—especially as it plays out in the motherly relationship that develops between Blanc and Susie. Swinton’s androgynous and entrancing looks had already proved to be a fitting physique du role for her prior magical undertaking, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, and here too Guadagnino’s longtime muse delivers a performance for the ages, her affectionate caresses to Susie’s face as transfixing as her outbreaks of violence. A bone-wrenchingly traumatizing foray into evil and—eventually—compassion, Suspiria features some of the most sickening shots in recent film history, but imbues them in a magnetic, hysterical beauty. On-screen dancing has hardly ever felt this bewitching.