Some spoilers, perhaps.
The atmosphere in the cinema after seeing Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 re-imagining of Suspiria was notable.. many seemed entirely bemused, not sure what to make of the two-and-a-half hour art house horror epic, others somewhat stunned, others still engaged in animated and somewhat excited conversation. It very much reflected the intensely divisive reaction the film has been receiving in critical spheres, being both held up as a modern day masterpiece and torn apart as a bloated mess. It seems to be suffering from a particular kind of contagion in some respects, being an exceedingly strange, experimentally exuberant, difficult film that has been thrust into the limelight through being connected to its 1977 namesake and involving a number of high profile actors. Sure enough, people have flocked to see it, but many who wouldn’t usually touch a film like this with a twenty foot pole have wound up confused, maybe even angry or upset.
I should go ahead and say that I loved every minute of it. I fully accept that not everyone will agree with me by a long shot, but I found Suspiria the kind of out-there, bravura film-making many insist doesn’t happen anymore. It may very well be too long and over-the-top, it may be off-puttingly disturbing and violent for many, but the modernist-gothic of the visuals, the heady themes swirling around its centre and the utter creative ambition of it easily place it up there with the most unforgettable films I’ve seen in recent years.
In relation to the original Dario Argento classic, it quickly becomes clear that the term “remake” has been somewhat loosely used here if it applies at all. The film’s most disturbing setpiece involves the central character dancing in one room [and it must be said the choreography is absolutely magnificent] inter-cut with another dancer being violently thrown around the room, twisted and deformed by her movements. Without any real gore to speak of, it’s possibly the most effective piece of body horror I’ve seen in some time, hammered home by a slow shot of the hapless victim lying on the floor, limbs twisted into unspeakable positions. This seems redolent of the film itself, taking the basic skeleton of the original and deforming it, splaying it into a grotesque new form, a violent realignment of anatomy. The violence in the film may indeed seem overdone, especially when we reach the final Sabbath sequence, wherein by its end the screen is practically drenched in blood and viscera, but I think it’s fair to say its integral to what the film achieves.
By this I mean that violence and pain doesn’t just form the visual of the film, but a key element of its thematic thrust. From the political context if its setting [“Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin”] leading towards something more deep-set and uncomfortable themes surrounding collective guilt and the violence perpetrated towards women throughout history. It would be a mistake I think to perfectly and neatly analyse it, cut the film up into nice little chunks to be wrapped up, labelled and understood… it deserves more than that, but the unmistakable thematic layers billow around it, bleeding into the atmosphere and underpinning the kind of feminine, even feminist mystique the film captures. At its very foundations, it subverts the dynamic of horror, placing us within instead of outside the witches coven, and digging into the history of witchcraft as something tied to the subjugation and division of powerful women. Witches, the occult, magic, were the other, inconvenient individuals to be disposed of, challenges to the status quo, and this political core to the history of magic and the occult is something that suspiria masterfully explores in its transposition onto Berlin wall era paranoia and unrest.
There is more, much more; undeniably there’s a parallel between the pain and violence of political change, personal rebirth, rebuilding… as if one were literally that dancer being torn apart in a mirrored room, reassembled, there’s abuse of power, refusal to listen, the value of collective empathy, all combining into one of the most intriguing and in many ways powerful feminist statements I’ve seen on screen, presenting us a feminism that lies beyond the boardroom, beyond slogans, and probes the very violence of being a woman in a world that seems to pay no heed to your suffering.
I can’t guarantee you’ll like Suspiria, indeed I’m aware a good few people outright despise it, but for my money it was a artful, twisted, ambitious, relevant masterpiece of bravely excessive cinema that has continued to stay with me long after the credits rolled. It’s not something that can easily be laid out and picked apart, turned into a diagram, but it is a heavy and visceral, yet simultaneously patient and touching visual outpouring of feeling, a tribute to and portrait of injustice, violence, femininity, empathy, guilt, pain, beauty… it might not be a spooky Halloween fright-fest, but the fear it does contain is, in some sense, many times more uncomfortable.