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Movie Review: Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film Suspiria is a film that paints itself as the opposing sister of the original. Where there were bright vivid reds and stunning visuals that latched itself onto the viewer’s mind in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Guadagnino fills his version to bursting with relevant political history, colors that revel in the existential angst of autumn segueing into winter, and so many different threads that remain unfulfilled by the end of the lengthy film’s conclusion that it will leave many pondering what they’ve seen. Although it sets itself out to ensure that it stands apart from its predecessor, I’m not entirely sure Guadagnino succeeds. One thing is for certain. Audiences will either love or hate this version of Suspiria.

The film takes place in primarily in 1977 Berlin, the same year that the original Suspiria was released. Guadagnino utilizes the tumultuous history of Berlin to his advantage to add further tension to the characters that reside in the film. And we are immediately introduced to that tension within minutes of the film’s start when we meet Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student at the Markos Dance Academy, when she goes to visit her psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) to try to warn him of what is happening in the studio. Amidst her hysteria over constantly being watched, we hear bombs go off in the background and activity happening in the streets of Berlin. Combine those two energies and you have a recipe for an easily tension-filled film.

However, when we are finally introduced to the internal dynamics of the Academy through the eyes of the aspiring dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), we are introduced to a world that appears relatively closed off from the outside world. Perfect, really, for a sisterhood to grow and blossom under the tutelage of the much older women inside the Academy’s halls. Unfortunately, not all is right and we soon learn what kind of dark power lurks under the surface through one of my favorite parts of the film – dance.

Although I have mixed feelings concerning how Suspiria has been edited, one of my favorite scenes that have taken place this year has been the rather gruesome dance sequence featuring Susie and the very disgruntled dancer, Olga (Elena Fokina). Prior to this scene, we have had no outward displays of the power that Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the other witches appear to have. There have been conversations and hints, but nothing overt enough to really make us consider these women to be a threat.

When Olga quits the dance company, Susie volunteers to take on her role in the Volk dance. Blanc knowing that Susie isn’t ready, but also knowing that Olga could not be allowed to leave, channels her anger into the naive dancer and the dance of death that ensues is mesmerizing. Each movement that Susie makes is met with a snap and twist from Olga and it is synchronized to perfection. If it had been choreographed incorrectly, I am sure that this scene would have made or broken the feeling that all were going for.  For this scene alone, I give a standing ovation to choreographer Damien Jalet.

Dance, in general, is more of a driving force in this film than its predecessor. At least, from what I recall from viewing the original Suspiria. Dance is both life and death. Ritual and salvation. And the way that the dance sequences are handled within the scope of the film is done in such a natural way that it doesn’t detract from the slowly growing chaos that has taken hold of the school. However, the dances also help serve as a guiding tool for the audience to observe the status of the witches in the film. As they grow more confident in their power, so do the dancers. As they become overwhelmed by chaos, so do the dancers. There is a direct link between the witches, their power, and the dancers. This is another credit towards Jalet as well as Guadagnino.

Another strength of the film is its actors. Tilda Swinton alone portrays three characters in Suspiria and manages to make each individual character stand on their own. Her quiet intensity resonated off the screen whenever we saw Madame Blanc, slowly dissecting her dancers with her eyes as she coldly calculates who can help bring Helena Markos back from her feeble state. Her Madame Blanc is a complete 180 from her prosthetic-ridden portrayal of Dr. Josef Klemperer, an elderly psychiatrist who is struggling with his own guilt at the loss of his wife during World War II. With the chaotic events that have taken over the broadcast systems of 1977 Berlin, he can’t seem to forget the traumatic memory of his wife being taken from him and Swinton easily conveys that heavy shroud hanging onto him as he moves about his life.

I’ll be honest. Suspiria is the first film that I have ever seen Dakota Johnson in and I find her to be a very subtle actress much in the vein of Kristen Stewart. There are no grand changes made to Susie’s character. However, the subtlety that Johnson brings as Susie slowly comes into her own onscreen and comes to take charge of the destiny that has been thrust upon her is definitely something to observe. It may not seem like much, but the way she adjusts how she carries herself, how she moves her body as she starts to gain confidence; it’s in the small choices that Johnson has made that make her very fascinating to watch.

One actor I wish we could have seen more of was Mia Goth and a lot of that may have to do with the likeability of the character she projects on screen. Goth plays Sarah, one of the favorite up and coming dancers at the Markos Dance Academy. Before Susie is selected by the witches to become the vessel to bring Helena Markos back, much is contemplated about whether or not to utilize Sarah instead. Having seen Goth portray more unnerving and strange characters, seeing her play someone more bubbly and friendly allowed us to see her range past the weird and macabre. Goth has an immensely bright future ahead of her and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

One of the aspects of the film that I really wanted to enjoy was the writing, especially the themes that I discovered throughout the course of the length two and a half hours of film. A length that you could really feel as the movie progressed as it were. Unfortunately, the writing was arguably one of the weaker points for me. I believe it ultimately came down to the script needing to be further finesse and made sharp. And also, to figure out what the main purpose of the film’s message should be because I was left walking away unsure of what I was supposed to take from the film.

There are a lot of ideas that screenwriter David Kajganich is drawing from. His version of Suspiria focuses on the Markos Dance Academy, but also terrorists assaulting 1977 Berlin, the guilt that many Germans carry post-Holocaust, brief interludes to what looks to be a Mennonite family (presumably Susie’s family). It adds up to too many ideas to really focus on, which ends up detracting from the horror that the film should have truly conveyed. Not only that, but with the film bouncing around to so many different focal points, the film felt the full girth of its length. And that is not what a viewer wants to feel while watching a movie.

The focus on what is happening outside of the presumed horror in the dance academy ends up weakening what could have been a strong image for the witches in this film. Each actress portraying a witch carries their own weight and presence, but it was difficult for me to find them threatening. And a lot of that has to do with the mysterious presence that was emphasized in the film. And so, by the time you reach the chaotic final thirty minutes of the film, you are left wondering why one needs to be concerned about Susie being sacrificed. The stakes aren’t really well established.  The true witchiness isn’t really revealed until that point and it ends up feeling like something that was shoehorned in. I do think that an additional re-write of the script could have helped to eradicate some of these ideas to make a sharper, more concise film.

All in all, I have very mixed feelings about Suspiria. After the credits rolled and we were introduced to the end credits scene, I found myself asking, “What did I just watch?” There was so much to take in that it was quite overwhelming. It can be said that this film will be something that will take much time to process after the initial viewing. There are many themes that the film tries to touch upon, but the execution doesn’t allow the points to hit home. There are a handful of subplots that take away from what the film could have been rather than what it is now. Ultimately, I think that with some finessing and fine-tuning, this version of Suspiria could have been amazing. As it stands now, I think the film has loads of potential, but is too bloated as of now.

Suspiria was released nationwide today from Amazon Studios. We would love to hear what you guys think of the film. Did you love it? Did you hate it? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us at @LegionofLeia.

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Sarah Musnicky

Sarah is a freelance writer and self-described workaholic. She loves fantasy and sci fi and will admit having dual loyalties between Star Trek and Star Wars as well as Marvel and DC. When she's not being socially awkward, she is in a corner obsessing over dragons, cute things, and a need to master all languages on the planet. She would like to be a professional blanket burrito when she reaches the peak of maturation.