Before you read this review, know that nothing said within say can do Suspiria justice. This is a film that defies explanation and must be seen to be believed. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to explain what makes director Luca Guadagnino’s twisted fever dream of a film so special.
Guadagnino’s name is recognizable to anyone who fell in love with his Call Me By Your Name last year, but this film couldn’t be more different. Told in six acts and an epilogue, Suspiria takes place at the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin during the winter of 1977. A young American by the name of Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) is accepted into the Academy because of the potential Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) sees in her. Meanwhile, psychiatrist Jozef Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton) is disturbed by allegations of a former member of the academy (Chloe Grace Moretz) that the higher-ups are witches.
Turns out, she may not be so off-base, as inexplicable, supernatural events start occurring right before Susie’s eyes as she ascends the ranks. However, she may be powerless to stop what is happening as the women who run the academy have complex plans for her.
Let’s start off by praising the aspects of the film that aren’t quite so difficult to discuss. Dakota Johnson is mesmerizing, transforming Susie’s innocence into confidence and then something much more sinister by the end. She brings forth a raw, animalistic energy into the dance sequences that can only be matched by her elegance. Moreover, the character shifts she pulls off by the end, frankly, seem impossible on paper. If there’s any justice, she’ll earn a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
Then there’s Tilda Swinton. Her performance(s) in the film are subtle, though effective. She can burn holes through her students as Madame Blanc or convey a quiet sensitivity as Jozef. Speaking of, although her dual role doesn’t pay off in any sort of twist, it’s a haunting duality that somehow works. A performance that’s bound to be underrated is Mia Goth as Sara, Susie’s best friend at the academy. As one of the main targets of the coven, she ends up doing a lot of the heavy lifting during the horror set-pieces, serving as this film’s proverbial “scream queen”.
Aesthetically, this film is beyond reproach. As opposed to the iconic visuals of the original, Guadagnino employs cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and editor to Walter Fasano build a cold, uninviting world that’s somehow difficult to look away from. It’s similar to our world, yet something’s off, and Guadagnino emphasizes that by letting Mukdeeprom and Fasano grow weirder and more experimental with each “act”. When Thom Yorke’s score, which is beautiful enough to justify a standalone release, is the least interesting thing about your movie, then you’re onto something.
And now it’s time to discuss the strongest, most enigmatic part of the film: the narrative. David Kajganich’s screenplay takes a while to get going. Saying the pacing is slow is at first is being charitable, because the amount of plot lines and side characters introduced within the first few “acts” can grow maddening.
It’s once the occult starts getting introduced that we’re really hooked. We get brief tastes- for instances, Susie dances another dancer’s body contorts into grotesque shapes- yet the film holds off, letting us spiral further and further into a dark descent of the mind, struggling to understand what exactly is happening.
The shift comes in a jaw-dropping dance sequence; a flurry of sharp movement unsettles with its usage of body language to. From then on the film is a relentless exercise in dread that comes to a head in… one of the boldest scenes in horror cinema history. In a sequence that it best referred to as “the ritual”, horrors occur that are so indescribable that I won’t even attempt to. A red filter covers the proceedings as Fasano’s editing, Kajganich’s cinematography, and the performances come together to force the audience in a head space that leaves one manic, confused, and exhilarated.
It will take many viewings to unlock the true meaning behind a lot of decisions in this film, but even on a first viewing what comes through is the sense that this is a movie you will never forget. Suspiria is an audacious movie, a horror masterpiece and my favorite film of the year so far.