There’s a lot of guilt in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, Suspiria, a burden of shame borne by a nation, Germany, that not so very long ago, heeded Hitler’s call to arms. The film unfolds against a backdrop of constant unease, be it political, emotional or spiritual. The spectre of man’s misdeeds lurks in every corner, but nowhere is it more potent than at the Markos Dance Company. Kept alive and thriving through the war, a time “when the Reich wanted women to shut off their minds and keep their uteruses open,” the company has left its glory days behind by the 1970s, when the film is set. Headquartered in a cold marble fortress on the border of the Berlin Wall, the company is at once a haven, where women can freely express themselves through art, and a living, breathing nightmare where the sins of the past come to haunt the future.
It’s autumn 1977 in Berlin, which means a steady stream of rain and terrorism. The Red Army Faction (RAF) is setting off bombs in the streets, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has hijacked a Lufthansa plane to support their efforts, and West German government officials are being targeted constantly. It’s in this storm that aspiring American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in the city to audition for the celebrated all-female Markos Dance Company, run by the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). With no formal training or prior experience, Susie nonetheless piques Madame Blanc’s interest, and soon becomes the company’s rising star, set to perform the lead role in Volk, a dance choreographed in the aftermath of World War II, and rooted in trauma and suffering. (The music, scored by Thom Yorke, echoes the feeling of existential jitters.)
But even as Susie flourishes, it’s clear from the get-go that there’s something strange going on in the building. Her dreams are an artsy-er version of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story credits, and we soon realise why. The film opens on another dancer, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), bursting into her psychoanalyst’s office, raving about witches and other supernatural occurrences at the company. A disciple of Carl Jung, Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton, under layers of makeup and prosthetics), dismisses her claims as delusions connected to Patricia’s ties to the RAF, as well as tensions between the instructors as the Markos Company. The witchcraft she’s referring to, he believes, is nothing more than workplace conflict.
He’s not totally wrong. The women who run the Markos Company are in fact full-on witches, worshipping ancient matriarchs that they communicate with through rituals, including dance. (In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Susie auditions for Volk after Madame Blanc infuses her limbs with some kind of magic glow. As she performs the crisp, almost jerking movements of the dance, deep in the bowels of the building, the body of a disgraced dancer is contorted into a mass of bloody sinew and snapped bones, her limbs involuntarily tied to Susie’s movements in a horrific dance of her own.) But just as Klemperer suspects, there is a power struggle afoot — inside the company and the coven — between long-time leader Helena Markos and creative director Madame Blanc, which ends up dictating much of the witch drama that unfolds.
Though directed and written by men (the script was written by David Kajganich, who has a gift for horror — he’s also behind the upcoming Stephen King film, Pet Sematary) what’s striking about Suspiria is its distinctly feminine energy. Women make up the entire cast — the decision to have Swinton fill the only male lead role was intentional — and the issues at stake feel just as relevant today than they did in 1977. Suspiria is about female power: the strength of the female body to writhe and contort in dance, both sensual and vicious; the regenerative power to give life; the intensity of sisterhood, and the vindictive need to hurt those — male or female — that flout it; the potency of simmering, repressed anger, and the devastation that it leaves in its wake once unleashed.
Interactions between women are crucial to every aspect of the film. In Susie’s flashbacks to the Ohio Mennonite farm she grew up on, women sponge off her sick mother as her laboured breathing acts as a morbid metronome. All the Markos dancers live communally in dormitories above the studio, where they cook together, clean together, and sleep together, a tribe of women linked by their shared pursuit. But that community comes at a price: loyalty. Betray your sisters, and the punishment is severe. It’s a message that I suspect resonates even more strongly today than it did when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Women’s anger and collective feeling of betrayal is at a tipping point, and Suspiria acts as a catharsis of sorts.
Also in that vein, the men of Suspiria have a stain on their souls. Even Klemperer, one of the so-called “good ones,” is wrestling with the spectre of his dead wife, one of the millions of Jews deported to concentration camps during the war, and whose fate is still unknown. When he ultimately finds himself in the coven’s clutches, his cry of self-defence (“Are there guilty men in Berlin?” ) can be read as a stand-in for all the “why mes” of men. In other words: Aren’t there others who have done worse? Why me and not them?
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is sumptuously desolate, a murky palette of greys, lifeless whites, and dreary 1970s browns. The bare surroundings are in stark contrast with the bright red costumes worn by the dancers in their Volk performance, which sets off the chain of events that lead to the film’s hideous, bewitching climax.
If you had any lingering doubts about Johnson’s ability to carry a film more complex than Fifty Shades Of Grey, Suspiria will dispel them for good. She plays Susie with a bland sweetness, a naive openness that makes her an ideal vessel for the coven. Johnson’s movements and facial expressions evolve with the character, as she sheds her religious roots and embraces the dangerous and exhilarating possibilities that the Markos Dance Company offers. Swinton, chameleonic as ever, manages to embody three different characters (I won’t spoil the last one) in ways that are both individually interesting and supremely linked.
Guadagnino’s film is ambitious — maybe too much for its own good. Things fall apart towards the end — giving monsters a face and physical form sometimes renders them less scary, and the film ultimately chooses to focus on an insubstantial threade. Still, it’s an astonishing creative effort t, imbued with awe for the infinite possibilities of the feminine. Don’t fuck with the witches — they’ll eat you alive.