This is an homage to the original film, not a direct remake, and it's better for it. One of the best films ever about women and rage.

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

This film showed up, for me, just at the right time. I don’t usually watch horror, but I made an exception because it was light outside and I was going to knit while watching, meaning my tolerance for horror was higher than usual.

And I’m so profoundly glad I watched it.

Suspiria (2018) by Luca Guadagnino is a re-imagination of the 1977 Italian supernatural horror film of the same name.

The original film is partially based on an 1845 essay, Suspiria de Profundis (“sights from the depths”), by Thomas De Quincey. The essays in this collection are rooted in his experiences with opium addiction.

As director Guadagnino intended the film to be more of an homage than a direct remake of the original, it is quite far removed from the original film.

A lot of people didn’t like this.

Suspiria (2018) was a box office bomb, grossing only $7,9 million with a budget of $20 million.

But I think it’s a masterpiece and a lot of people are missing out.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Suspiria (2018) is set in the same year the original film was made, 1977, in West Berlin during the German Autumn. Real historical events, including the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, bombings, and numerous kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction, play out in the background.

American modern-dance prodigy Susie Bannion leaves behind her repressive Mennonite upbringing and moves to a divided Berlin to join a world-renowned all-female dance company led by charismatic choreographer Madame Blanc.

She soon vaults to the role of lead dancer, as the woman she replaces breaks down and accuses the company’s directors of witchcraft.

While this is a simple premise; girl attending dance company learns it’s actually run by a coven of witches, Guadagnino’s Suspiria delves a lot deeper into the character backstories, the lore and introduces a scattered and cryptic plot which doesn’t come together until the very end.

Suspiria (2018) has a unique and unsettling atmosphere that’s hard to shake. It’s not like the 1977 film, which is more of an acid trip through a haunted house, packed with highly saturated colours, trippy lighting and an alt-rock score.

Guadagnino’s reimagining is absent of primary colours, emphasising the atmosphere of a divided Berlin itself. The tones are muted and muddied, greys and browns. This gives the film a cold, lonely feeling. There are one or two instances that harken back to the visual identity of the original film, with deeply saturated colours and flashing lights, but overall the visual mood of this film is drastically different.

This film taps into something innately female, but without being preachy.

The bulk of the cast in this film are women. Even Dr. Klemperer, the only notable male character, is beautifully played by Tilda Swinton.

Swinton, in fact, played three roles (four if we count playing the part of Ebersdorf-the-actor on set); Madame Blanc, Dr. Klemperer and Helena Markos, who appears in the final act. Of Swinton playing all three characters, Guadagnino said: “This is a movie that is very connected to psychoanalysis, and I like to think that only Tilda could play ego, super-ego, and id”.

My favourite of these three performances was Madame Blanc.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re all absolutely amazing performances, but coming from this world, the energy of women who changed dance — Pina Bausch (my favourite choreographer), Martha Graham (my favourite dance technique) and Isadora Duncan (my favourite quote, “You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you”) — is beautifully expressed by Swinton in Madame Blanc; in how she moves, how she speaks, how she carries herself.

Pina Bausch comes through as the main inspiration for Madame Blanc.

The hair, the smoking, the long dresses are clearly inspired by Bausch. Of these three big women of dance, Bausch is the thematically most appropriate. While I see the influence of both Graham and Duncan, those are more in the linage of the dance itself, not explicitly in the character of Madame Blanc.

Bausch’s kinaesthetic lineage comes from the Weimar-era Ausdruckstanz, expressive dance from Germany and Austria, which is a form of artistic dance in where the individual and artistic presentation of feelings is essential. It emerged as a counter-movement to classical ballet at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe (this counter-movement is echoed in how Suspiria of 2018 differs from that of 1977, but I digress).

Bausch launched her Tanztheater Wuppertal during the Cold War era, for which she created dozens of works, all unforgettable and mythic in status today. She took the emotional, human experience driven values of the Ausdruckstanz style and married it to inherited conceptions of individual functions within groups. Her applications were rebellious, honest and socially conscious.

Bausch’s experimental search for her own form of artistic language challenged the dialogue between dance and theatre. Developing new dramaturgical and performative forms were at the heart of her artistry, although her pieces were mostly performed on large, traditional stages for large audiences.

As result of her training with Kurt Jooss and historical situation in post-war Germany, Bausch committed her aesthetic to addressing the inherently violent and alienating circumstances of humanity and contemporary civilised society.

The main theme of her work revolves around the difficulty of being human in an unjust and cruel world. And Bausch endlessly explores the human beings with their fears, pettiness, joys and sorrows to illuminate the tragedy of humanity. Yet, in the midst of all that, the longing for intimacy and laughter are essential to her work.

A famous quote from Bausch even has meaning for this film, “I am not so much interested in how people move but in what moves them”.

I realise this isn’t knowledge that those not familiar with the history of dance would have, but knowing all of this as I watched the film, added an incredible amount of depth to the character and the narrative.

While this is a powerfully women-led film, there are no girlboss monologues.

The film never makes a point of being mostly women.

There is no corporate interest trying to sell you on the cutest, quippiest, most sanitised version of feminism they can come up with.

Instead, the film has an incredibly organic feel. It taps into something innately female with the movement (which there is a lot of), the sisterhood, the sexuality, the rage. Yes, the rage. It was one of my favourite parts of this film, but we’ll get to that.

The 2018 film went for a contemporary dance style where the 1977 film is more rooted in classical ballet. This switch beautifully facilitates the storytelling, by opening up the movement and dance to a more organic form than classical ballet, without breaking the conventions of the form itself.

Early in the film, there’s a dance scene that’s viscerally uncomfortable because it’s so grotesque. As our protagonist Susie dances for Madame Blanc, Patricia, the dancer who abdicated her position, is forced to mirror Susie’s dance in a gruesome ritual sacrifice.

The movement in the film communicates to us things that are happening under the surface, revealing powers at play that aren’t yet apparent, but which come together in the end. And I love that the movement in this film isn’t sexualised — which is an easy way out a lot of films take to demonstrate so-called femininity — but in this Guadagnino showcases an incredible sensitivity to what is innately feminine.

Instead of using the movement as a gimmick, it’s a conduit through which Susie can channel her own, innate energy. In her case, it’s the rage of a repressed woman.

From the beginning, we see how Susie has always been hell-bent (pun intended) on finding a different life than her restrictive religious upbringing would allow for. Chasing dance, even at the cost of being punished at home, has become a driving force in Susie’s life.

While she’s quiet and reserved in her daily life, being on the floor and in the spotlight, on stage, allows her to reclaim that part of her that was disdained and punished; such as her mother burning Susie’s hand with a hot iron for being caught masturbating.

While Susie seems to be sweet and delicate on the surface, her flashbacks (interspersed with more surreal imagery) punch through, showing us the dark creature beneath that has been fed by her unexpressed anger and inner torment. And the more comfortable Susie becomes at the Academy, embracing it as her new home and embracing the tutelage of Madame Blanc, the stronger this inner darkness in her becomes.

“When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator. You empty yourself so that her work can live within you.”

— Madame Blanc, “Suspiria”

As Susie is coached, it gets to a point where a fellow company dancer, Sara, who has started unravelling the secrets of the coven, confronts Susie about the changes she sees in her, accusing her of making some kind of dark deal with the witches.

This scene is interesting, because while Susie’s transformation feels sinister, she’s actually coming into her own. And another woman confronting her about growing into her power is almost like the patriarchy standing up and taking notice of a woman simply giving in to her true nature.

As we all know, the patriarchy doesn’t discriminate in who it indoctrinates, so men and women are equally capable of being mouthpieces for the patriarchy. Susie’s mother is the most prominent representation of this, the betrayal of the mother, when she fails to have understanding and compassion for her own daughter.

Earlier in Susie’s life, it was her religious upbringing, but specifically her mother, that kept pushing Susie back into a box, back into more acceptable parameters. As a child, Susie had few ways to fight back and stand her ground, but now as an adult, Susie assures Sara that everything is fine, there’s nothing going on, effectively sealing her decision to continue.

Sara, of course, doesn’t believe her and runs away from Susie’s reassurances. In this, Sara mirrors Susie’s mother by turning away from compassion and understanding, rather believing in the narrative she has accepted as the true nature of things.

And in this we see the age-old story of a woman beginning to embrace her own power, her own agency, and being labelled as a witch for it. How many women have been burned alive for this same “crime”?

Susie’s family tried to shape her into the image of an obedient woman, imposing purity culture on her, but in doing so, they actually helped create the stronger, darker version of Susie that grew out of her anger and frustration. The film then follows her journey as she embraces this inner darkness and uses it to fuel her transition into Mother Suspiriorum.

Even the one male character is not male.

Amazon Studios

Dr Klemperer and his story is an addition to the film that doesn’t exist in the original. His story becomes integral to the denouement.

Dr Klemperer is the one who is first to hears of the coven of witches through Patricia, who is his patient. Though, to him, her conspiracy theories are at first nothing more than a delusion. But when Patricia goes missing, he begins to see there is some truth to her fears.

As the coven becomes aware of Dr Klemperer having knowledge of them, they cast a cruel spell on him. His wife Anke, a Jewish woman who died during the war, suddenly comes back into his life. Having grieved her for many lonely years, Klemperer is overcome with emotion and allows his wife to guide him back to the dance school, where he is captured by the witches.

As they’re dragging him into the building, to be stripped and to bear witness to the gruesome ritual they’re preparing, one of the witches says something very telling: “When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them! You tell them they have delusions!”

This is an interesting line, because it highlights the invisibility of women in a world dominated by the patriarchy. Women are seen as lesser, their experiences are given less importance, and so they are easy to dismiss. But it’s precisely in this space where that female rage resides, and it’s in this space where this coven exists – right under the nose of regular society, hiding in plain sight.

And as they get on with their own business of trying to find a new body for their elected leader, Dr Klemperer is forced to bear witness. Helpless and ignored, he has no power in this gruesome scenario, serving only as witness and paying a heavy price for having concern for some of the students at the school.

Klemperer is already a victim of the Nazi rule in Germany, having lost his wife and been a helpless witness to countless atrocities, as were many others. But while he has questions and uncertainty in regards to his wife’s fate, he is forced to live through to coven’s ritual.

There is a semblance between the basement in which the ritual takes place and the gas chambers used to execute millions of people. Death literally rising out of the floor to claim her victims, I think, also has parallels to this.

Klemperer’s pain and suffering, the irreversible damage to his psyche are, yet again, irrelevant to those perpetrating the violence. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is written to expose the violence and injustice done to innocent victims of leaders who act in cruelty and self-interest, with little thought to the human cost of their choices or actions.

This theme is tied together in the end, when we see a Susie, who has fully transformed into Mother Suspiriorum, visit Dr Klemperer. She explains that she regrets what her daughters did to him (witness the ritual) and that she was not in a position to prevent it.

She proceeds to tell him the truth about what happened to his wife, describing how she had women with her when she died, of how she was cold but not afraid, finally laying that uncertainty to rest. She then proceeds to erase all memories of the school, the students, the coven, the ritual as well as of his wife from his mind. She tells him, “We need guilt, Doctor. And shame. But not yours.”

It’s an incredibly tender scene, heart-rending. And the purpose here is to say that it’s not the guilt and shame of the victims that is ever needed, but that of those in power, to bring about change. If those in power and at the top had more shame and guilt, a lot of the suffering of innocent victims could be eradicated, or would never happen.

This is a beautifully crafted film that can proudly stand on its own legs, apart from it’s inspiration. The actors performances are stellar across the board. The choreography of Damien Jalet adds primal yet intricate dance pieces that enhance the storytelling. This is a film full of psychoanalytical references and you gain new depth and meaning with each viewing. This is a film that took the opportunity to really say something and I think it’s going to age well because of it.

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