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Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Suspiria (2018)

FilmA Black Swan Sucker Punch.

After languishing in development hell for years, Suspiria finally returns to the big screen in the form of Luca Guadagnino’s unsettling and dark vision.

Arriving in Berlin in 1977 to train at a prestigious dance academy, Susie (Dakota Johnson) soon becomes embroiled in the machinations of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and company’s sinister plan.

Where Dario Argento’s 1977 original was a frenetic blast of colourful camp, Guadagnino’s vision is the slowest of burns and boasts some of the year’s most upsetting imagery. His Suspiria is a very different being. It’s own, even, and it proves to arguably be superior to its predecessor in some regards.

Guadagnino keeps the visuals monotonous and dark (kind of like 70’s Berlin), giving an overarching sense of evil being omnipresent throughout the film, but he is also unafraid to throw the strangest things at the viewer, particularly during Susie’s dream sequences which are arguably the most arthouse aspects of this arthouse horror. This is a film unafraid to keep the viewer frustrated, disturbed, and tense.

The film is at its best when dishing out the horrific imagery. One bravura sequence finds a young woman contorted into horrific injury in tandem with one of Susie’s dance sequences (all of which, throughout the film, are tremendous). From this to a horrific limbless lady crawling along, Guadagnino is in admirably far territory from last year’s Call Me By Your Name, demonstrating a creatively strong grasp on the material at hand.

Uniformly, the cast are brilliant. Tilda Swinton excels, pulling triple-credit duty (that’s three roles, two of which you’ll have to guess), but leaving the strongest mark as Madame Blanc, at once cold but also caring in her own strong way. She’s the most intimidating but also the kindest of this school of witches. Also on strong form is Mia Goth, working well as Susie’s incredibly straight-laced best friend, but also giving good creep-face when required. The only truly weak link proves to be Johnson, admittedly providing an impressive physicality as Susie, but seemingly relying on her shtick as the cute girl rife with naivete. At least, for the first half of the film.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke’s score is equally superb, if at times a bit too whimsical for a film seemingly intent on building up suspense and unease. But when the film hits the right notes to make your heart do flips in your chest, so does Yorke, with bravura technique.

However, there are other areas that leave room for improvement. The film’s insistence on focusing on Dr. Josef Klemperer seemingly only exists mostly to shoehorn in rambling social commentary on just how bad Berlin was at the time, knocking the sequences involving the main characters off their tonal balance.  And when the final act finally arrives, a degree of suspension of disbelief is required as, among other things, Guadagnino demonstrates what Scanners might have looked like had David Lynch on cocaine held the reigns.

Suspiria

The theme of female power throughout the film also seems decidedly mixed. At one point, it is all efficiency, but at other points, crumbling. This may be intentional, Guadagnino possibly intending to provide a nuanced portrait of such, but with the climax as it is, it does beg further study.

It is no secret that Suspiria 2018 has received the most divisive of responses, and that is totally justified. One may say it lingers too long on the pacing, while another may say that it serves to build up suspense. Others may find the scare-factor lacking, while others may be repulsed and terrified by every second of it.

Regardless, Guadagnino’s vision of Suspiria is one to be treasured, a true original. Which isn’t a bad shout given it is remake of a beloved classic. And it’s not far off to say that in time, this film may itself become a classic in its own right.

The line that may be the most apt from the film comes from Swinton’s Blanc; “Today, we are going to break the nose of every beautiful thing.” And Suspiria is certainly close to that. Brokenly beautiful.

VERDICT: 4/5


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