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Exberliners in Venice FIRST LOOK: Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino returns to the Mostra with Suspiria, his remake of Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic, starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Set in Berlin, this new version comes out on German screens later this year. Here’s our First Look...

Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino returns to the Mostra with Suspiria, his remake of Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic, starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Set in Berlin, this new version comes out on German screens on November 15. Here’s our First Look Review of not only one of the most awaited films in this year’s Competition line-up, but also one of 2018’s most anticipated releases…

As is usually the case when a remake of a beloved film is announced, pitchforks are at the ready, with the ever-common query, “Why can’t they just keep their talons off it?” making the rounds. Hard to argue when it comes to Dario Argento’s first instalment of his Three Mothers trilogy; a unique fairytale that boasts a fever-dream mood and an extravagantly garish colour palette. However, I became cautiously optimistic by what didn’t seem like the worst bad idea ever. After all, the filmmaker behind last year’s gorgeous summer romance Call Me By Your Name revisiting the visually abstract giallo classic – what’s not intriguing about such an enticingly weird 180° turn?

Set in 1977 and consisting of “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin”, Luca Guadagnino’s new version of Suspiria stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannon, an American ballet student who auditions for a spot in the renowned Markos Dance Academy, only to discover that students are either mysteriously disappearing, prone to Dickensian hysterics or predisposed to uncontrollable convulsions, all under the watchful eye of artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). So far, so Dario. However, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is less of a remake and more of a total reimagining of Argento’s film. He does hold onto some elements, not least an appreciation for the inherent eeriness generated by the walls of a vacant hallway; however, it’s clear from the get-go that this is a completely different beast, and necessarily so. Better yet, it doesn’t play it safe or fall into largely pointless homage. Most notable absentees are the otherworldly sounds and sinister whispers delivered by Italian prog rockers Goblin, as well as the vibrant colours that drowned the frames, here replaced by unexpectedly muted and grey tones.

Written by David Kajganich, this year’s Suspiria not only distances itself visually but also refuses to tread old ground on a narrative level: Susie’s motivations and agency are quite different here, as is the decision to not even bother to pretend that the school isn’t run by a coven of witches. No more shall be revealed here, but safe to say that the location switch from the original’s under-seen Freiburg to this retelling’s far more prominent Berlin is interesting. Exactily why the period setting was emphasised above the school’s corridors or what the socio-political backdrop of the late 1970s actually contributes to the storytelling is often debatable, but it’s clear the source material has been boldly banished.

Despite these promising elements, and much to my dismay, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Darren Aronovsky’s fairly maligned Mother!, which premiered last year on the Lido. Like Mother!, Suspiria is a polarising effort that feels muddled. There’s so much going on that it never satisfyingly coalesces, similar to the way the surprisingly melodic score from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke doesn’t quite gel with the atmospherics. Admittedly, the original film wasn’t too concerned with shackling itself to tight narrative or logical constraints, but the dread-laden mood was all-consuming. Less so here. Also, a convoluted subplot in this retelling features a psychiatrist (also played by Swinton under heavy prosthetics, for no apparent reason) tends to stall the film’s rhythm and unnecessarily undercuts the potential claustrophobia inherent to the Tanz Akademie setting. And while the rousing, Pina Bausch-indebted dance sequences are stunningly choreographed and act as ritualistic ceremonies, a prevalent sense of unease remains frustratingly absent.

A more praise-worthy point of comparison with mother! – quite aside from a vaginal looking chest wound which visually echoes one of its most memorable posters – is the thematic focus on motherhood. Guadagnino tantalisingly but obtusely explores the Three Mothers mythology and makes his Suspiria about how shame and guilt are forces that can be reclaimed by women, as well as rebirth as a vital and intransigent force. Decrying from this is a persistent accent on female sexuality: from the dialogue (“If I go back, they’re going to serve my cunt on a plate”; “My daughter is my sin – I smeared her on the world”), to the penetrating uterine hooks the coven use in rituals, to the costumes, the director taps the giallo vein in which psychosexual urges and womanhood frequently interflow. It’s fertile ground visually: the evocative crimson red bondage ropes used for one dance performance not only hark back to the coven rituals but also to menstruation and the erotic impulses that Susie feels when a dark force beckons her closer. It’s a layered sequence which joins a savagely gorgeous bone-breaking scene as a high point. Sadly, these clear peaks are never equalled.

Different though it may be, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is like Argento’s in that both are intoxicatingly stylish but noticeably uneven. Whether the 2018 treatment follows the former’s example by bewitching audiences with its unique discrepancies over repeat viewings remains to be seen. What’s certain is that this new bloody ballet perplexes significantly more than it unsettles or scares, and, like the Mother of Sighs that gives the film its name, it’s bound to provoke a fair few of those too.

Suspiria | Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Italy, US 2018) with Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton. Starts November 15.