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Review: ‘Suspiria’ is defiant, but its efforts may be misplaced (Includes first-hand account)

Dario Argento is one of the best-known Giallo directors in cinema and Suspiria is one of his most celebrated works. Of course there are other directors working in this space, and he’s made other films that expertly marry the violence, sexuality and style that define the genre, but when one of thinks of Giallo they think of Argento and/or Suspiria. Therefore, reimagining one of the genre’s most notable pictures is a heady task to be taken on by only the bold… or foolish. Based on Luca Guadagnino‘s “homage,” he might be a bit of both.

Susie (Dakota Johnson) is an American who’s left her life as a Mennonite in Ohio to follow her dream of becoming a principle dancer at a prestigious academy in West Berlin. Inauspiciously, she arrives at the school in a moment of turmoil. They are in the midst of preparing for a show based on the director, Madame Blanc’s (Tilda Swinton), most renowned work and the lead dancer has disappeared. After impressing the administrators and another unfortunate incident, Susie finds herself as the lead in their next show, Volk. In the meantime, the missing girl’s psychiatrist (Swinton again) and Susie’s new friend, Sara (Mia Goth), are growing suspicious of the school and slowly giving weight to the accusations that it’s run by a coven of witches who worship the Three Mothers.

The film is set in 1977 during German Autumn, a time of political flux and violence in the country. However, there’s also supposed to be an underlying sentiment of German guilt throughout the film that doesn’t resonate until the last 30 minutes, at which point it feels out of place and inappropriate. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the psychiatrist is used to introduce this immense guilt for people’s behaviour during Nazi-rule, though his connection to the Holocaust was never before discussed. It feels shoehorned into the narrative, which is already trying to insert ill-fitting political overtures via news reports heard in the background. Guadagnino’s previous pictures have all had subtle yet meaningful commentary, but it doesn’t really work this time.

Rather than mimic Argento’s red theme, the director has opted for a starker aesthetic of white rooms and muted colours… until, that is, the final act when the movie adopts a more traditional Giallo-look, bathing a windowless room in red light and blood. The choreography by Damien Jalet is aggressive and expressive, opting for a more visceral, interpretive style versus the defined elegance of ballet. As it’s an extension of the witchcraft afoot, the forceful movements are very appropriate for the narrative and even have a startlingly violent effect on one of the dancers. Moreover, the score composed by Radiohead singer Thom Yorke adds to the uncompromising tone of the film, which can be somewhat unnerving but also keeps audiences attentive.

This is a divisive film that defies expectations, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. At 152 minutes, one’s appreciation for Guadagnino’s approach has a lot of time to waver and those moments of brilliance can become overshadowed by the self-indulgent, art house elements that appeal to a more niche audience — which is not to say Giallo has ever been mainstream, but even fans may have a hard time staying with this interpretation.

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Chloë Grace Moretz

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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