Friday 19 October 2018

Suspiria (Italy/USA 2018: Dir Luca Guadagnino)

Remakes are as old as film itself. And while I don't generally subscribe to the 'why bother?' argument for that very reason, it doesn't stop me holding the opinion that most updates of original movies offer very little. But I keep an open mind because sometimes a remake does provide a new perspective on the source film, while being important in its own right. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

Suspiria was the remake that shouldn't have happened. The original held such canonical status that any attempt to update or reboot it met with incredulity in fan and critical circles. But when the trailers started to appear the dissenting voices quieted somewhat. Revisiting the original movie it's clear that Dario Argento was much less bothered with narrative drive and more with set pieces, spectacle and overall mood. While this makes the original timeless, its occluded storytelling leaves lots of questions unanswered (and which failed to be fully responded to in his sequels Inferno (1980) and the belated final part of the trilogy Mother of Tears (2007)).

Guadagnino's version cleverly takes the key plot points of the original film - a dance studio run by a coven of witches, with a war between the three founding 'mothers' into which newcomer Susie Bannion is admitted - and gently re-assembles them, producing a movie which feels both naggingly familiar and very different - it's a hard one to pull off, but he succeeds.

His Suspiria is set in the Berlin of 1977: the timing is important. Not only is it the same year that the original film was released, but it was also a time of Bowie and Iggy's occupation (there's a Bowie poster on one of the dance student's walls to prove it) and huge civil unrest in the city, what with the tensions between east and west and the rise of the Red Army Faction via the Baader-Meinhof gang. Guadagnino exploits these tensions, even gently suggesting that they are in some way the product of the spiritual war going on within the City's Markos Dance Academy.

Described as 'six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin' the chapters of the film gracefully progress, taking their own sweet time to gradually generate a mood of decay and even ennui. Whereas Argento's movie was bathed in primary colours and full of overexcited characters, Guadagnino's version visually utilises muted shades and hues, and has a cast whose general temperament could best be described as 'listless.' Fittingly the Markos academy, while seeming very similar to the building in Argento's original, looks old and in poor condition here, and its location by the Berlin Wall subtly integrates it into the country's turbulent history. This version of Suspiria doesn't trumpet its arrival, but insidiously creeps up on you (even the title sequence dispenses with the film's name by having it superimposed on a passing U-Bahn sign), and its two and a half hour running time doesn't drag as a result.

The director holds back on the violence too, although the threat is ever present. One scene early on, where one of the students is despatched in an empty mirrored studio, her flailing limbs broken and smashed by an unseen presence while, in another room, new arrival Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is executing the same moves via an audition piece, is shocking partly because of the quiet sequences that bookend it.

Tilda Swinton is on restrained top form as Madame Blanc (a role more melodramatically realised by Joan Bennett in the 1977 movie), ruling the dance academy and tutoring the pupils in rehearsals of an extended piece called Volk, which was originally devised at the end of the Second World War. The dance will acquire huge significance towards the end of the film as the power struggle between the 'mothers' erupts (the only point in the movie where the grand guignol excesses of the original are revisited); its development also strongly suggests the complicity of the rest of the students in relation to the events that are set to unfold. Also connecting to the war is a new character of Dr Josef Klemperer (subsequently disclosed to be Swinton herself under heavy facial prosthetics) who is carrying out an investigation into the Academy based on the disclosure of a former pupil, one of his clients. His treatment at the hands of the victorious 'mother' at the end of the film added a coda of sadness to the movie that I wasn't expecting; equally unexpected was some light humour, courtesy of the coven at rest.

Thom Yorke's score is as moody and unobtrusive as the film which it soundtracks (although I could have done without his instantly recognisable voice which took me out of the film somewhat), and I liked the ambiguity and pathos of its conclusion. Suspiria is a movie which challenged and exceeded my expectations. It handles its many changes of tone without affecting the overall structure of the film, and its emotional sweep was unexpected but powerful. It's a film I'd happily see again and again, it's that bloody good.

Suspiria premieres at the London Film Festival on 16 October 2018 and is released theatrically from 16 November.

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