Suspiria (‘18) is a film about divisions: divided Berlin; divides in a dance group; divides between husband and wife; divides between very real political chaos outside and the creation of dance inside – the list goes on. It makes sense then that the film itself is so painfully divided – to the detriment of all parts.
At the very core of Suspiria (‘18) is an enthralling and baroquely-grotesque horror about identity and control – in which themes are imparted cinematically in the way horror excels at. There’s maybe an hour of that… spread thinly over 150 minutes. Any nuggets of potential brilliance are outweighed by a suffocatingly bleak wrapping that focuses on post-war guilt in 70s Berlin – in the most overtly expository ways. Surrealist horror about witches who use dance for ritual is counterposed with realist stories about political activism and the scars of the holocaust.
This did not work for me at all.
I love the original and this reimagining serves to illuminate just how good it is and how damn talented Argento was. The relentless atmosphere, beautiful cinematography, oppressive sound design and colourful lighting (that matched emotion, not reality) sold the surrealism, turning the nonsensical into something hypnotic. Argento’s style created substance and the enthralling horror was undeniable. The original film is unnerving from the start and only gets more so.
Guadagnino (of Call Me By Your Name fame) leaves all this behind. There’s a gritty reality to this new film that makes the surreality of the witchcraft plotline fall apart. Questions about motivations and character arise where they never did in the original. Guadagnino seems to not just have no interest in making a horror film, he seems to actively hold a disdain for the genre. Rather than evoking themes and ideas from the trappings of the genre (e.g. through metaphor and fear – as well as the cinematic language of horror) he just surrounds everything with things of sincere importance – presuming that will add weight and profundity. Yes there are witches, but look, that person is talking about their experience of the holocaust. Yep, there’s a subplot about that and, even more infuriatingly, this dramatic weight is carried by the inherently ludicrous image of Tilda Swinton pretending to be an old German man. All in all, it’s a juvenile approach to an intelligent genre and it detracts from everything. The horror just feels shallow and there is no sense of fear at all. It’s just a dull post-war drama with confusing – and counterproductive – flirtations with all-out horror imagery. The result is something inert. Serious issues are downplayed, the core story feels completely inessential and pretention reigns.
There are, however, two superb horror set-pieces: one involving dance that is utterly enthralling and jaw-droppingly violent (in a very effective way). However, the horror climax is so poorly judged as to be laughable: it’s a real spectacle – and boy is it bloody – but the preceding horror is so shallow that any thematic pull is completely lost. What’s infuriating is that a couple of sequences show that the director does understand the language of horror, making his refusal to employ it all the more frustrating.
Ideas aren’t explored, hinted at or evoked; fear is not used powerfully as a metaphor. Horror here is just the ability to conjure images of the grotesque, and the genre is so much more than that. By snobbishly refusing to partake in genre convention, Guadagnino has made a passionless, shallow and ultimately unintelligent picture. The director is so busy explicitly posturing at heft, importance and sincerity that he never actually manages to make a film that is any of these things.
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