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.