Moviegoers expecting more of the tasteful pleasures of the sea, the Italian landscape, and the male form which propelled director Luca Guadagnino's “Call Me by Your Name” to global acclaim may well emerge from his latest release feeling traumatized, the recipient of a nasty little Halloween trick. Even those who hold Dario Argento's original film in high regard are likely to be offended at the liberties Guadagnino takes with the source material. But for those with strong stomachs, open minds and a modicum of patience, this new Suspiria delivers a shocking, ambitious, and ultimately haunting meditation on female power.
Little of Argento's film makes the transition besides its slim premise: American dancer Susie Bannion travels to a mysterious dance academy in Germany.
Gone is Argento's expressive palette of garish primary colors. Guadignino unambiguously sets his film in 1977 Berlin—the year Argento's film was released—against the industrial grays of post-war Berlin in the midst of the German Autumn. Reports of RAF bombings and the Lufthansa hijacking drift from televisions and radios, and the Berlin Wall looms over the academy from across the street.
Gone, too, is Argento's central plot development: Susie's climactic discovery that the academy is a front for a coven. The screenplay by Guadagnino and David Kajganich (“The Invasion,” “Blood Creek,” “A Bigger Splash”) makes it clear early on that these are, indeed, witches. The focus, instead, is on Susie's personal transformation and empowerment under the tutelage of this matriarchy.
Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the Helen Markos Academy for Dance unannounced and uninvited in the wake of the sudden disappearance of another dancer. Despite a strict Mennonite upbringing in Ohio and the lack of any formal training, Susie's intuitive, primal improvisation convinces the school's head choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to accept her into the school.
Providing pupils free room and board, the academy represents a refuge from the division and violence of the largely male-dominated world just outside its doors. The coven's power appears to be generated through dance as a kind of ritual magic, and the dance sequences, choreographed by Damien Jalet and captured by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, are convulsive yet beautiful, a convincing manifestation of power embodied in women.
This all-female refuge, however, is no paradise, and tapping into its power comes at a price. Susie begins to have nightmares, which she soon discovers are endemic among her fellow students. One of the instructors cuts her own throat. And when lead dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) challenges one of the instructors, she feels the wrath of the school's entrenched matriarchy.
Dancing for Madame Blanc, Susie's movements take control of Olga, who is trapped in a rehearsal room below. In a brutally violent sequence, each of Susie's gestures are inflicted on Olga. Walter Fasano's editing draws a convincing connection between the two women until Olga's bent and broken body lies inert in a pool of blood and urine.
As she has been prone to doing in recent years, Swinton plays multiple roles. But here, as opposed to, say, “Snowpiercer” or “Okja,” she demonstrates great restraint. As Madame Blanc, she's a sashaying, chain-smoking taskmistress, deadly serious about the art she is creating. In the film's opening scene, Patricia, the missing dancer (Chloë Grace Moretz), in hysterics, seeks protection from the coven at the office of her therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer, also Swinton under layers of clothes and convincing prosthetic makeup. One of the few men who make an appearance in the film, Klemperer is kind and indulgent, and utterly useless, attributing her fear to paranoid delusions. For her part, Dakota Johnson also underplays her part, reserving the fireworks for the dances.
As the bond between Madame Blanc and Susie grows, it becomes clear what the coven has in mind for its new star, but nothing is likely to prepare viewers for the climactic ceremony which conjures both “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” and the visceral extremes of David Cronenberg.
Despite the film's epilogue, Guadagnino does not attempt resolution, for his viewers or his subject. The varied themes of creation and destruction, patriarchy and national guilt, art and suffering, are embraced in all their messy contradictions, and the film is ultimately stronger for it.