Surrounding what is initially a girl-with-a-dream story is the early reveal that the Tanz academy is a coven of witches experiencing dramatic change not unlike the city it resides in. There is little mystery to the updated Suspiria, as Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich assume that viewers already know the bones, or at least the premise, of the story. The instructors are quickly shown to perform spells and magic, and an early scene follows disillusioned student Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz) into Dr. Josef Klemperer’s (Lutz Ebersdorf, but really a fully disguised Swinton) office where she lays out much of the background narrative and establishes the mood of paranoia. Much of the film takes place away from Susie, a character who becomes more mysterious the further she rises in the school and whose role as protagonist is supplanted by Mia Goth’s Sara Simms and then again by Klemperer. While it’s always clear what’s happening or is about to happen, the film’s formal instability keeps it from being overly predictable, a perfect balance of transparency in the global sense and surprise in the immediate.
Argento’s film, as sensually powerful as it is, is no one’s idea of a technically immaculate film. Guadagnino and his team aim for that level of proficiency and exceed it. Suspiria is arguably the best edited film of not only 2018, but the last several years. Editor and frequent Guadagnino collaborator Walter Fasano pieces scenes together to create a pervasive sense that someone is always watching, that there is nowhere to hide in the Tanz Academy. The order and arrangement of the film makes clear what the witches’ powers are without anyone ever running down a list, as firm a demonstration of showing and not telling as could be demonstrated. The sound design is equally impeccable, communicating the sheer physicality of dancing with every leap and landing while each creak of a joint readies the viewer in horrified anticipation for the inevitable snap.
Nowhere is the technical brilliance more on display than in the handful of dance sequences that grace the film, each a masterpiece of tension and dread and elegance. This flavor of modern dance is an art form that is distant from this viewer, but Suspiria communicates its otherworldly appeal. Humans shouldn’t be able to move as the humans do at Tanz, and then the film capitalizes on that latent physical improbability by intercutting these demonstrations with bodies contorting themselves past the point of peak athletic fitness. These intricate displays of control are juxtaposed with the loss of same, like the witches are at their height when they’re crafting and executing routines of unassailable precision and artfulness. Suspiria is also at its best here, becoming an open-mouthed stunner of pure cinema for those too-brief moments.
No empty thrill ride or spectacle, Guadagnino and Kajganich are stuffing theme into their film at a heavy, perhaps overburdened, clip. Dr. Klemperer serves as a walking reminder of the Holocaust, as he makes regular trips into East Berlin to visit the home that he and his wife, missing since the war, used to live in, and he incorporates the Nazis into the film by discussing the Reich’s shared delusion complete with esoteric rituals and secrets. The equivalence between the coven and the Nazis is further elucidated by the mention of former SS officers who still work in the government, infecting it as surely as the Tanz academy infects its students with gruesome nightmares. Madame Blanc’s masterwork is called Volk, an allusion to Hitler’s blood and soil claims, and the fuhrer is evoked again by the political turmoil within the coven, wherein Blanc is outvoted for headmistress in favor of the unseen Helena Markos, a democratic ratification that leads directly to atrocity. The casting of so many middle-aged women against the young 20-something students contains volumes, where the older generation cannibalizes the younger one for parts to enact their vicious aims, often with their signature meat hooks. The character of Patricia embodies this particular thread, as she was formerly the teacher’s pet before becoming an acolyte of the Red Army Faction, therefore losing her interest in resurrecting a once-glorious past in favor of attempts to enact a new future. Guadagnino is in constant conversation with German history, a tale sordid enough that it doesn’t look out of place next to a story about latent evil just below the surface.
Swinton’s seems to be at a phase in her career where she needs some kind of over-the-top hook in the roles she takes, a la muteness in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash or a twin dual role in Okja. Suspiria provides this in spades. Blanc by herself is a juicy, scenery-chewing role, a character of refined allure and barely-contained malevolence, but adding the gender-swapping Klemperer and a third role requiring even more makeup satisfies the degree of difficulty Swinton is looking for. For this viewer, who thinks everything Swinton does is fantastic, Suspiria is a buffet, a demonstration that Swinton not only will do anything she wants, but that she has a level of talent that earns her the right to do so. Johnson occupies the opposite level of esteem, as she’s an actor that has never impressed outside of her lead role in the short-lived comedy sitcom Ben and Kate. While I still don’t buy her as a dramatic lead here, she nonetheless is giving her all to the physical side of the performance, turning herself into a credible dancer. Moretz and Goth both are asked to play extremes, and both deliver, while the deep supporting cast of instructors are each handy with an unnerving stare or cackle at a hapless passer-by who doesn’t know how much danger they’re in.
Not many would expect a mid-century Italian horror director steeped in gruesome, possibly exploitative imagery to get a passable feminist consideration into his film, but a modern Italian gay man who cut his teeth in intimate drama could have a better shot. Witches have long been a source of twisted feminine power, or the particular imagining of it that is suggestive and seductive. The witches of Guadagnino’s Suspiria don’t draw in their victims through sex appeal, but through renown and competence and the confidence that comes from knowing that a person is damn good at what they do. It’s the kind of confidence that Guadagnino likely has no trouble imparting to his cast, because he’s surely earned it with his recent run of highly acclaimed films, capped off with this delirious improvement on something that was already a classic. If this is pandering to a nuance-less American crowd, then please, continue to treat me like an idiot. A-