* * * 1/2 (out of five)
Luca Guadagnino follows up his sublime Call Me By Your Name with a bonkers, WTF take on Dario Argento’s 1977 bonkers, WTF dance-school horror classic Suspiria. It’s weirdly entertaining, supremely stylish, and somewhat surprisingly superbly acted, even as it baffles at every turn, until the last, when it manages to draw at least some of its strands together and achieves something like profundity.
Guadagnino shifts the story to a professional dance company in Berlin in 1977, casting his A Bigger Splash actors Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as an incoming dancer and the company’s artistic director, respectively. As with the original, all is not as it may appear on the surface at the institution. Indeed – very minor spoiler alert – it’s actually a front for a coven of witches.
Guadagnino shoots the film, not as a garish freak-out in the style of Argento but with the grainy, semi-documentary 70’s grungy realism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and has acknowledged the influence in interviews about the production). It is a very different vibe to Call Me By Your Name, all hand-held zooms and strange edits, weird pacing and disjointed storytelling. You’re constantly aware you’re watching a film, a construction, and more than a little aware of it being rather precious, or at least indulgent. It is, for example, two and a half hours long.
And yet, a lot of it really works. Besides the very rigorous aesthetic, which is entertaining on its own, the film has Johnson and Swinton, and that’s a lot. Johnson really engaged me throughout the whole thing; I found her mesmerizing, compelling, endlessly fascinating. Whatever Guadagnino is up to here, she seems to get it, and manages, through a very determined performance – including loads of contemporary dance – to bring us along. Her character, seemingly a naïf from Ohio, is surprisingly complex, and, by the time of the film’s truly demented climax and her part in it, she’s earned it, whatever the hell it is.
Besides the company’s chief artiste, Swinton plays two other parts, each under layers of prosthetics; one is a man in his eighties, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who is investigating the possibility of witches at the company. She’s uncanny as Klemperer, so much so that no casual audience member would likely suspect the character is not being portrayed by a real old man, and I only reveal it’s her because it makes watching her performance far more fun.
In the end, Guadagnino goes for some hefty and intriguing questions about culpability during the Nazi era that are simultaneously provocative and confusing. I’m sure he knows exactly what he wants to say; I’m not sure he’s said it with great clarity, but I’m equally sure he hasn’t intended to. Suspiria is deliberately disorienting and perhaps deliberately obtuse; it’s never very scary, but it’s often beautiful and always fun.