“We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” announces a stone-faced Tilda Swinton at one point in Luca Guadagnino’s new sprawling horror fantasia, “Suspiria.”
More than just noses are broken – legs, arms, ribs and skulls are snapped, crushed or otherwise brutalized over the course of the film’s grueling 152-minute run-time – but perhaps the most significant act of brutality is how Guadagnino has bludgeoned the visage of his source material, Dario Argento’s 1977 original, into something cold, brutal and unrecognizable.
“Suspiria” isn’t a remake so much as a reconfiguration, and a moving and utterly transformative one at that — it’s not a film you see so much as come to terms with, but you’ll be sorry if you ever forget it. Bold, brutal and savagely beautiful, it’s a piece of film-making not to be missed.
Set in 1977, the year the original was released, this unfamiliar retelling of a familiar story begins as its predecessor did, with a naïve American dancer arriving at a prestigious German dance academy shrouded in mystery and despair. In shifting the year to 1977 and the setting from Freiburg to Berlin, Guadagnino submerges his film in the political turmoil of the German Autumn, a backdrop that provides atmosphere and thematic grounding as the film transforms from a dark fairytale to a sick debate on generational guilt.
Guadagnino isn’t content just to probe over the scars of the past; he rips them open and soaks in the blood, reveling in a caustic concoction of pain and sorrows where solace and reconciliation are hardly guaranteed. What emerges, scarred, brutalized and drenched in gore, is a stunningly contemplative masterpiece about art, feminine rage and the lingering scars of grief.
As a filmmaker, Guadagnino has long been fascinated by the duality of oppression and repression, but perhaps never more beautifully has that struggle been conjured to the screen than here in "Suspiria," where the forceful and emphatic movements of his dancers become not only a testament to the power and majesty of feminine beauty, but a savagely beautiful reclamation of autonomy, an escape from repression.
That’s clearest in Dakota Johnson’s stunning lead turn, a performance that blends deeply felt emotional nuances with a wicked and animalistic physicality that renders her a powerful and compelling lead. Her physical performance is entrancing, and the beauty, pain and sorrow with which she’s able to imbue her every movement is spectacular; she’s a miracle at every turn.
It’s also beautifully realized in a frightful sequence early on that displays the terrors of losing bodily autonomy. As Johnson’s character Susie dances in a practice hall, she unwittingly controls the body of another dancer trapped in a nightmarish room below with mirrored walls, twisting the poor soul’s body into a brutalized husk of flesh and cracked bone. As Johnson spins and twirls, so too does the second dancer, like a demonic marionette, and as their mirrored movements cause brutal destruction on her body it’s clear just how horrific that lack of control is.
Other sequences of similar insanity and perverted beauty pepper the film’s runtime like blood droplets on a white sheet. It’s a movie so overwhelmingly cold, drab and vacant, as well as dense with political and philosophical subtext that it’s easy to forget just how preposterously violent it’s capable of being. It creeps through much of its runtime slowly, but never succumbs to outright monotony, relishing the darkness of its narrative and wallowing in the chilly atmosphere of Cold War Germany. Bombs burst in the background, news broadcasts of a plane hijacked by extremists clog the airways and a cold rain drenches everything.
More often than not, “Suspiria” is so sorrowful and melancholic that its wretched soul and bloodlust are obscured entirely, but Guadagnino maintains a steady enough hand to let darkness seep through at all the right moments, creating an experience that culminates in literal explosions of blood and guts, but feels altogether more tragic than frightening.
It’s a harrowing and disturbing experience that bypasses the cheap scares of mainstream horror and instead fosters a deep-seeded and lingering sense of dread, pain and melancholy.
“Suspiria” is by design an ugly film, a sorrowful and operatic horror masterpiece that’s content to rip open age-old scars other films might know better than to touch. It confronts generational guilt and the lingering evils of fascism with terrifying vigor, and in the mixture of blood and tears that pours forth is a sublime beauty few films have captured and few ever will.
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