In Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, one of the first things we see on screen is that the film is “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin.” It’s an odd piece of information, but somehow perfectly sets the stage for what’s to come. You know there’s a specific structure. That knowledge helps you anticipate when things are about to happen. And yet, seeing it unfold is still shocking, mysterious, and engaging.
Much like the 1977 Dario Argento original, this new Suspiria focuses on an American named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who travels to Europe to audition for a prestigious dance company. However, that’s basically where the comparisons end. Susie instantly catches the eye of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), one of two women who are jockeying for control of the school, and becomes a star pupil.
Very quickly the audience realizes Madame Blanc and her faculty aren’t just dance teachers. They are witches grooming Susie for...something. Meanwhile, a psychologist named Dr. Jozef Klemperer (actor Lutz Ebersdorf, who many believe is also being played by Swinton) has a hunch something bad is happening at the school thanks to a patient (Chloë Grace Moretz), and tries to solve the puzzle with the authorities.
The relationship between Susie and Blanc, along with Klemperer’s quest, weave in and out through Suspiria—and despite what you may be expecting, it’s all very accessible as a straightforward mystery narrative.
However, the story isn’t really the main attraction in Suspiria, it’s Guadagnino’s brash, exciting filmmaking. Employing multiple erratic editing techniques, incredible cinematography, expert digital and practical effects, gut-wrenching sound, and more, Guadagnino has created a living, breathing work of art. We’re interested in the story, yes, but the world and the characters are almost more fascinating thanks to the way each is presented.
The whole film sings, sometimes literally, with a swirl of emotions. Certain scenes are truly terrifying. Others are suspenseful. And some are even kind of humorous. And as expected, there’s lots and lots of dancing, which is used in so many ways it almost boggles the mind. Dance is a weapon, dance is sex, dance is character development, and on and on. Anytime a huge piece of the story needs to be told in Suspiria, there’s a good chance it’s happening through dance. (The sequences were choreographed by Damien Jalet.) It’s just another way for Guadagnino to let the audience experience a scene rather than have it explained to them.
The screenplay, by David Kajganich, not only helps keep all of these things in balance but weaves in a subplot about political upheaval in ‘70s Germany. This adds yet another level to the film because it’s not only used as a kind of parallel to the dance company, it gives characters like Dr. Klemperer a real-world explanation for what they believe to be happening there. It grounds some of the fantasy before things really go off the rails. But that’s Suspiria. It’s almost always working on multiple levels and how the viewer chooses to enjoy it is entirely up to them.
Along the way, that six-act structure adds a ticking time bomb to the film. As we learn more about Susie, Blanc, Klemperer, and others, each new act builds anticipation for the final act where all of it comes together. I won’t spoil how but when it was over, I simply wrote “Well, that just happened” in my notes, too shocked and in awe to say anything else.
Very little of this would be possible without incredible performances—and, it almost goes without saying, Suspiria is filled with them. From Chloë Grace Moretz’s glorified cameo to Tilda Swinton’s charming yet demonic Blanc, all the supporting characters are rich and interesting. Johnson, though, is the real standout, showing a range and power we haven’t seen from her in the past. She commands the film and is infinitely captivating as she slowly gets sucked into this weird, wonderful rabbit hole.
Suspiria is a movie that is so rich on every level it can only get better the more you watch it. But even on a first watch, there’s simply too much care put into every single frame to not be in awe of it. Luca Guadagnino has created an incredible piece of cinema that should make Argento proud.
Suspiria had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018 and comes to theaters October 26.