Venice Film Review: ‘Suspiria’

In “Suspiria,” Luca Gaudagnino’s gory but imperiously lofty matriarchal horror film, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a doe-eyed lass who grew up on an Amish farm in Ohio, joins a dance troupe in West Berlin housed in a building of somber high-ceilinged marble that looks like it was designed by Albert Speer in the ’30s. Susie, young and naïve, is a fearless dancer. During her audition, she improvises a routine by snapping her head back and forth and jutting her limbs out with scissory percussive aggression (very creative, and also very here’s what the devil will do to you in an “Exorcist” knockoff). That, as it turns out, is just what Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the austere director of dance at the academy, is looking for.

The dancing in “Suspiria,” which is a major part of the movie, has so much snap and thrust and rhythm you might call it an art-conscious cousin of the pop choreography of Bob Fosse. Only there’s a crucial difference. Fosse’s bopping, hat-tipping, shoulder-flexing moves invited women to strut their erotic energy with forceful ownership, but the dancing was still filtered through a male gaze. Fosse seemed to be saying, “Empower yourselves — for me!” In “Suspiria,” the movement is even more jutting and explosive, but it erupts from the women’s souls. It’s primal writhing turned into modern dance; it’s sexual, but there’s nothing ingratiating or “sexy” about it. And that’s why it’s dangerous.

After winning a place in the troupe, Susie tries out for the role of the protagonist in Volk, the group’s signature dance piece, because the lead dancer who was first cast in it has stalked out in a huff. Susie now amps up her performance, flinging her arms out like weapons, and this time they really are: The woman she replaced finds herself trapped in a mirrored studio on a different floor, where her body gets flung around the room, in tandem with Susie’s movements. She’s like a doll being smashed by an invisible psychotic child. Her limbs bend and break; her ribs crack and bulge. She winds up as a crumpled mass of broken bones on the floor, leaking saliva and urine.

That’s an outrageously graphic scene, but in “Suspiria” it’s not just a moment of horror designed to upset us. After all, the person doing the flinging (from afar) is the movie’s heroine. What’s more, she’s a dutiful sweetheart, or appears to be. Dakota Johnson, from “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequel, plays Susie with beatific eyes and a long earnest red braid and that voice of spun sugar, and her ambition seems driven by nothing so much as a pure desire to create. When her movements, in that one scene, inflict mortal damage, it’s presented as a divinely demonic spectacle of womanly power. The movie says that this is what a dancer, unleashing her natural energies, can do.

Then again, the reason it’s all happening is that the dance troupe Susie has joined is, in fact, run by a coven of witches. You’d think that would be designed to spook us. But Guadagnino, though he serves up generous helpings of blood-gushing nightmare imagery in “Suspiria,” has a lot more on his mind than getting a rise of fear out of you. I’d say, in fact, that he has way too much on his mind.

“Suspiria” is that rarity, an extreme horror movie made by a deeply serious maestro of a director. Yet considering that it’s a remake of one of the most lavishly nutty baroque-schlock horror films of its era, you’d think Guadagnino might have wanted to lighten up and take a bit more debauched glee in the material. But no. He has said that while he grew up as a fan of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” which he saw for the first time when he was 14, he has chosen to reimagine it in the style of a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

He isn’t kidding. The new “Suspiria” has more than touch of Fassbinder’s astringent dryness and rigor, and a little of that goes a long way. The movie, while absorbingly crafted, is two-and-a-half hours of solemn slow-burn mystery. It makes you wonder what’s coming next — a remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” done in the style of Chantal Akerman? Hirokazu Kore-eda’s reboot of “Audition”? “Suspiria” has the virtues, but also the limits, of a lavishly cerebral high-end horror film. It holds your attention, and creeps you out at times, but it’s not scary, and it’s not really — dare I say it? — fun. By the time it drags itself to the finish line, you may think, “Okay, now we know what ‘Suspiria’ looks like as an art film. Can we please go back to when it was just a garishly flamboyant piece of bat-house trash?”

Released in 1977, Argento’s “Suspiria” has always been a movie you could be a fan of without having to pretend that it’s very good. It’s a sketchy crazy Grand Guignol head trip whose pleasures are all on the surface, because there’s nothing underneath the surface. It’s voluptuous shlock — the Italian giallo film gone grade-Z psychedelic. The story is so threadbare it would have been sent back for a rewrite by Roger Corman, yet that’s part of its aesthetic, because it allows “Suspiria” to be a movie that’s all style, all psychotic-Italian-horror-movie frosting: the sets that still dazzle with their Satan-gone-Liberace décor, the 14-note evil-music-box theme by Goblin that can play in your head for decades. “Suspiria” came out at a moment when the horror film was in the midst of a high renaissance (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Carrie,” “Halloween”), but the Argento aesthetic mostly paved the way for the nonsensical-ization of horror.

Guadagnino replaces Argento’s operatic slasher bravura with his own deliberate pace and soft colors and subtle framing. “Suspiria” is now a period piece, set in 1977, consisting of “Six acts and an epilogue, set in divided Berlin” (as the opening title informs us, already making the film sound like homework). In the background, the radio crackles with news reports about the Red Army Factions’s kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer and the simultaneous hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. It’s all very topical and serious. Oddly enough, this really is a movie — in spirit and style — by the director of “Call Me by Your Name.”

Which could have been fine, except that Gaudagnino, in his way, condescends to the horror genre by taking such elaborate pains to elevate it. On the rare occasions when he tries to shock us, he does a great job: the fragmented nightmare montages of bad-acid-trip imagery — worms, evil faces, memories of domestic torture — are incredibly well executed, and I wish the movie had done more with them. And the characterizations of the witches are quite effective, with veteran actresses like Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven using their thick accents to create that sinister ghost-of-the-Nazi-era vibe. “Suspiria” has just enough intrigue to creep you out and keep you curious.

Guadagnino, though, has felt the material out less as storytelling than as a vehicle for his timely theme, which is the rise of women. In the original “Suspiria,” the fact that the villains were witches carried an undertow of feminist novelty, but the drama was still about Jessica Harper uncovering what amounted to a hideous conspiracy. Guadagnino is more ambivalent. He has made a movie in which a cult of dance-troupe witches scheme with great cunning, abuse their dancers, and menace anyone who would threaten them, but they’ve also taken a righteous historical stand against male hubris.

Just about every member of the cast is female, and the film extends that ideal to what looks, at first, like a supreme casting coup: Tilda Swinton plays the troupe’s artist-guru choreographer as a chain-smoking, feral-eyed sylph in long svelte gowns who says things like “When you jump, it’s not the height but the space beneath you that matters” — but she also, under a mountain of make-up, plays the role of Dr. Josef Klemperer, an old, stooped, white-haired German psychiatrist, one of whose patients, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), was a member of the troupe and then disappeared. He’s trying to find out what happened to her.

This is the film’s little joke (the “actor” who plays Klemperer is billed as Lutz Ebersdorf, complete with fake biography in the press notes). But here’s where the joke is on the movie. Swinton does such a note-perfect job of portraying a doddering German intellectual in his 80s, and the make-up is so flawless, that the notion that there’s an actress under there, even if you know it, all but vanishes in significance. This leaves us with a draggy detective character who keeps stepping on the film’s rhythm, especially once he starts to pursue the question of what happened to his wife, Anke (played in a cameo by Jessica Harper), during the war. Much as I appreciate the genius of Tilda Swinton, the real reason the doctor keeps hanging around is that, by the end, he stands in for the patriarchy (he’s the shrink who thinks women suffer from delusions). But if the film had figured out a less labored way to carry that message, it could have been 45 minutes shorter.

The witches are looking for one of the dancers to become the next…something. Sacrificial lamb? That’s sure what it seems like. But it’s all boilerplate sinister in an overly vague and slippery way. Susie becomes their choice, which mirrors her role in the grand performance of Volk, done in half-nude costumes of blood-red rope. And then, at long last, the payoff arrives: a scene so grotesque and insane it’s meant to be a catharsis. It’s all built around the presence of Helena Markos, the ancient witch who claims to be one of the three “mothers.” She is played, under pounds of rotting naked flesh, by — you guessed it — Tilda Swinton, though the best touch here is Markos’ sunglasses. She’s the demon as too-cool-for-the-room celebrity. Even here, you may watch the scene mesmerized by the horror but, at the same time, wishing you knew who, exactly, was lording it over whom, and how. “Suspiria” has been made with enough skill to get inside your head, but also with enough ominous pretension to leave you scratching it.