Suspiria

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* * * 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.

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A Bigger Splash

bigger_splash.jpg***1/2 (out of five)

Luca Guadagnino follows up his surprisingly successful – and polarizing This Is Love with another Tilda Swinton vehicle in a lighter vein. A Bigger Splash is a loose remake of 1969’s French La Piscine, and indeed, a heck of a lot of it takes place around a very beautiful swimming pool.

That pool belongs to a villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria, where rock star Marianne (Swinton) and her beau Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing. Along comes her ex-beau Harry, an extremely successful rock and roll producer, and his recently-discovered daughter. Sexual and romantic tensions simmer, by the pool and elsewhere.

Harry is played by Ralph Fiennes, and his daughter Penelope by Dakota Johnson, and these two inspired pieces of casting give the film its zing. Swinton is good, of course – she always is – but we’ve seen her in this kind of role before, and she can kind of do it in her sleep: Marianne is cool, and so is Swinton. But Fiennes, whose out-of-the-box comic performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel gave Guagagnino the clever idea to cast him, gives us something we’ve never seen from him before, with gusto and huge energy. Harry is a big big character and Fiennes gives a big big performance that is spellbinding and – the cursed cliché of the film critic – revelatory.

Schoenaerts continues to be excellent in every thing he does, but Paul is the least interesting character, the reactor rather than the actor in this house full of extroverts. I wasn’t sure whether Paul was meant to be American or European – his accent is kind of both – but, when Hollywood is ready, so is this lumbering Belgian.

A Bigger Splash has little to say; a sort-of subplot involving refugees on the island results in little more than a cute joke at the end rather than a powerful look at what’s going on in Europe at the moment. It’s a sun-kissed vine of a film, whose plot (which is really incredibly slight) is entirely subservient to its presentation, on an antipasto platter, of four excellent performances. You kind of go to this movie to go to this house on Pantelleria, and hang out with these rock gods – and why wouldn’t you? They’re beautiful, sexy and fun.

How To Be Single

12370750_1534849806835524_1592610361207727068_o*1/2 (out of five)

Dakota Johnson has such a fresh, engaging, likeable screen presence that she single-handedly manages to sublimate the impulse to rip your cinema seat out of the floor and hurl it through the screen while watching the horribly named How To Be Single, a Friday-Night-Girls-Night-Out Warner Brothers / New Line / MGM by-product that is impressively more contrived and vacuous than the other post-Bridemaids cash-ins that have rained down on multiplexes since that film made nearly two hundred million dollars in 2011.

Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays Alice, a young woman who essentially drops her sweet beau Josh (are they all named Josh?) at the start of the film because, among other things, she hasn’t hiked the Grand Canyon. Moving to New York, she is quickly educated by a co-worker, Robin (Rebel Wilson) in “how to be single”. These lessons basically consist of aiming – every night of the week – to get so hammered that sex with a stranger is inevitable, and if you can’t remember the details – of the sex or even the stranger – all the better. Waking up in a random apartment is a bonus.

Putting aside the astonishingly unsafe practices being advocated, and the blasé way in which they’re presented as fun fun fun, this unsustainable lifestyle only scratches the surface of how idiotically life in Manhattan is presented and how ludicrously each of the film’s many characters behaves, from how they talk and walk, dress, eat, drink, flirt and, particularly, work (the workplace scenes here are beyond a joke; “work” in this kind of movie – and in this movie in particular, which is a very bad example of its kind – is just a fancy room with extras in suits opening and closing their mouths silently, like guppies).

Wilson, Leslie Mann and – particularly sadly – the otherwise talented Alison Brie all flail embarrassingly in roles that are too badly written to possibly be acted well. Every man in the film is a plastic construction of vacant, inane banality. Yet somehow Johnson pulls Alice off. Her story is no less clichéd than the others, her dialogue no less asinine. Perhaps her post-Grey glow – and a natural, peaking screen charisma – have a halo effect; you can’t see the actual movie for her sunny trees.