It feels as though director Luca Guadagnino looked at the original Suspiria, decided it made too little use of its setting (a ballet academy), and said to himself, "What if the original had fewer trashy kills, less provocative and expressionistic lighting set ups, a duller soundtrack, and way, way more dancing?"
Now, don’t get me wrong: There’s something interesting to be done with the combination of dancing and devilry. The precise movements and odd contortions of ballet can be made to feel like physical manifestations of fork-tongued incantations. And Dario Argento’s 1977 original used the ballet company at the film’s center as little more than an excuse to get a number of women living under the same roof. The extent of his interest in ballet, as an art form, can be summed up in this gif:
Guadagnino’s Suspiria is best when it is treating ballet as a form of psychic combat, as a means of doing violence to one’s enemies. The most fascinating, terrifying scene in the movie comes relatively early on, when Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a newcomer to the Markos Academy, asks to perform the protagonist role in the troupe’s most famous ballet. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) imbues Susie’s hands with the power of the coven at the heart of the Markos Academy, and sets her off on the violent routine—hands striking forth, legs sweeping out, a vision of controlled chaos.
As Susie does her routine, a girl trapped elsewhere in the building pays the price. We cut back and forth between the two. When Susie swings her arms about, the girl is thrown into glass. When Susie contorts her body into the gnarled positions called for by the dance, the girl’s back twists and her ribcage shatters. When Susie intertwines her hands and arms and legs, the girl wrings like a rag doll. The misshapen lump on the wood floor at the end of Susie’s performance barely looks human any longer: black and blue and balled up, she more closely resembles a hunk of discarded meat.
The sequence is horrifying and viscerally powerful. I defy you to watch it without cringing. The problem with Suspiria is that such sequences are few and far between. Guadagnino has taken Argento’s rather spare 100-minute cult classic and turned it into a bloated 150-minute exegesis on religion and rage and Nazism and sexism, one that culminates in a feverish eruption of bloody violence and bodily possession.
Susie, who has fled her strict religious upbringing in Ohio in order to join the legendary Markos Academy, is barely at Suspiria’s center. Rather, Guadagnino seems more interested in psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (Swinton, again, in old-man makeup). We first meet Klemperer as he talks to Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a patient with delusions of persecution. At least, he thinks they are delusions. He is less sure as the film progresses—an uncertainty that persists in part because, in his past, he lost his wife to the Nazis after he tarried while she demanded they flee. It is time to start listening to women, after all.
The appropriation of the Holocaust by Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich feels contrived at best, tasteless and tacky at worst. It is emotionally manipulative, a grab for artistic relevance and intellectual depth that does nothing but call attention to the fact that the 2018 Suspiria incorrectly believes it has Something To Say About Our Times. Instead of accepting the insanity of its premise—that a coven of witches would find a ballet academy useful cover for practicing their dark arts and that its founder would vie for immortality by occupying the bodies of younger apprentices—the filmmakers force audiences to endure a meandering side narrative about a character of little interest to us and his wife, whom we never actually meet.
It's unfortunate. The final half hour of Suspiria suggests there’s a brash, mad movie buried somewhere under all this pretense, one that could have rivaled Mandy for most-batshit-fun movie of the year. What has been given to us is bloated and boring.