A first look at the latest from the director of Call Me By Your Name, from the Venice Film Festival
“They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” utters Chloe Grace Moretz within the opening few minutes of Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Italian Giallo master Dario Argento’s cult horror classic, Suspiria. It sets the tone for a film hellbent on disturbing, enchanting and creating plenty of pulsating portent. In fact, it’s high on mood and – arguably – not a lot else.
It is a depressing thing to report. Save for a minority of (no-doubt implacable) traditionalists that will sit with fists clenched and teeth gritted no matter what, there is a lot of goodwill ushered towards this version of Suspiria. In that way, it’s a bit like watching a best man’s speech: a keen desire for it to be good amid worries it won’t be.
Fresh from the success of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino tackles his compatriot’s work by expanding upon it, dividing the story into six acts and adding an epilogue.
Dakota Johnson takes the reigns of Susie Bannion, the American student fresh off of a flight from Ohio and into the grey skies of 1970s Berlin. She is to attend the city’s prestigious ballet school, a place overseen by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and her band of sinister-looking cronies. Susie is quickly inculcated into the protocols of her new environment and assigned a room in which to board. She establishes herself as a prodigious talent by impressing as the protagonist in a dance called the Volk after a dissenting Olga is dismissed and dealt with in the most horrifying of ways.
Elsewhere, there is an ageing psychotherapist who had previously tended to ballet school absconder Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz). Patricia had left in his possession a tattered old diary plastered with comments regarding covens and witches. His curiosity is piqued by these abstruse scribblings and he starts to mount investigations of his own. All the while, in the background, real-life hostage situations relating to the RAF (Red Army Faction) blare out from transistor radios as an ancillary soundtrack; and they offer an unsubtle metaphor for the pernicious culture of life at the ballet school. Are the students really free to leave of their own free will? Or are they hostages themselves?
Argento stated that his original idea for Suspiria was to start the film with a crescendo. In this regard, Guadagnino has deviated substantially. If you were to think of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan it wouldn’t likely conjure any comparison in your mind to Argento’s Suspiria. Yes, they both might relate to nightmarish dance school settings, and both might dovetail into supernatural goings-on, but they were stylistically executed from a completely different place. It says plenty that 2018’s Suspiria hugely elicits thoughts of Black Swan. It is no compliment: personality, individuality and originality have taken leave.
The maverick Argento daubed his take with virtuosic brushstrokes unshackled by restraint or conservatism. By contrast, Guadagnino seems to be bound and suffocated by compromise and dilution, caught in two minds between being irreverent and unique and honouring what came before.
Roman Polanski’s The Tenant is more of stylistic reference point for the schizophrenic, surrealistic signals and chaotic descent into unreality that erupts here. In a contemporary landscape, this could have been directed by David Fincher thanks to the austere desiccated cinematography (cinematography handled by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in a collaboration that extends from Call Me By Your Name).
Guadagnino is a fantastic director – that remains without question. His camera swoops, sweeps, pans and dissolves with the flair you’d expect. But the overall look is a million miles away from the primary colour overload and gonzo hyperactivity of the original. The difference is night and day.
He has even buried Thom Yorke’s soundtrack within the film rather than allowing it to disconcertingly rattle the viewer by lying on top. Yorke has big shoes to fill for his first foray into soundtrack work: Goblin’s original score is so famed, loved and damn iconic that there is a heavy expectation weighing upon him. His is first heard in Act 1, through a plaintive piano melody housing a pining falsetto. It’s all rather sonorous and innocuous, bearing passing semblance to his band’s, ‘Pyramid Song’, and his remaining work is sturdy and evocative, if not barnstorming in its residual impression.
With such matters cast to one side, you ask: is it wrong to chide a remake for taking a different approach? Probably. Let’s face it: in an increasingly sanitised, conservative world, daring to be (truly) different should be lauded and praised. It is just that this is not different from the multitudinous directors who etch out horrors that tick exactly the same boxes and tropes as Guadagnino has here.
For all of its atmospheric scene-setting leading to the final act bluster, 2018’s Suspiria feels dispiritingly anonymous and indistinct, despite tantalising, fleeting flashes to the contrary, and a little, well, old hat. The greatest horror is how average it is.