Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” embodies a familiar trope of the art-house consensus: the application of political themes to movies like items on a checklist. “Suspiria” is full of disconnected, static, but attention-getting, details of vast historical import, and these adornments’ function is far more insidious than mere virtue-signalling or pride. They are bait for critical vanity, handing critics toys to play with, toys that can be defended as educational while offering little substance and less thought.
Dario Argento’s original film came out in 1977; that’s the year in which the remake (written by David Kajganich) is set. The action is transplanted from Freiburg to Berlin—to what was then a divided Berlin, with West Berlin isolated and surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. A young American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), turns up for a scheduled audition at the Markos Dance Company, in West Berlin, located in a mansion that’s across a grim and desolate street from the Wall. Though she quickly prospers as a dancer, attracting the attention of the choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and getting cast in a lead role, she soon suspects—and is also alerted by other young dancers—that something is amiss: the elder women who run the dance company are witches who prey on younger female dancers in order to sustain it and, in particular, to revitalize its founder, Helena Markos (also played by Swinton).
Guadagnino and Kajganich adorn the macabre doings at the studio with bits and touches of actual political events of the time—primarily the ambience of political violence centered on the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang) and, in particular, the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by Palestinian agents demanding the release from German prison of the group’s leaders. The major departure of the remake from the original is a plot involving a psychiatrist, Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Swinton, again), who is treating a member of the company, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Patricia comes to him with assertions—and a diary—in which she sets out the connection between the group’s political terrorism, witchcraft, and the Markos Dance Company. (He doesn’t believe her, and considers the notion of witchcraft delusional—though, in a compensatory bit of practical wisdom, he believes in the manipulation of ideas such as witchcraft to justify and conceal abuses.)
The filmmakers also shoehorn the Holocaust into the film with a conspicuously effortful shove. The psychiatrist’s story frames the movie and is threaded in throughout (a psychiatrist in the original “Suspiria” is only a minor character): he’s a bereaved man whose wife, Anke Meier (Jessica Harper, who plays Susie Bannion in the original), has been missing since the Second World War. She was Jewish but had papers affirming that she was Aryan; the movie hints that she wanted nonetheless to escape from Nazi Germany and that Jozef dissuaded her from doing so until it was too late. Meanwhile, Patricia vanishes—ostensibly into the Red Army Faction—and two other dancers who try to warn their peers and the world of the dance company’s depravities, Olga (Elena Fokina) and Sara (Mia Goth), suffer grim fates. Susie, enjoying her sudden stardom and attempting to use her talent—and her favor with Madame Blanc—to avoid their fate, is in danger of becoming complicit in it.
The Wikipedic superficiality and political frivolity with which these grand historical and psychological themes are applied to the gory drama are matched by the appropriation of a few jingling baubles of feminist dialogue meant to get viewers hungry for “substance” to salivate. They’re the product and the fruit of lazy filmmaking. The movie has nothing to say about women’s history, feminist politics, civil violence, the Holocaust, the Cold War, or German culture. Instead, Guadagnino thrusts some thusly labelled trinkets at viewers and suggests that they try to assemble them. The result is sordid, flimsy Holocaust kitsch, fanatical chic, with all the actual political substance of a designer Che T-shirt. When a few riffs of dialogue, midway through the film, speak of a character’s fate in Theresienstadt, one wants to tell the script to get that word out of its mouth.
Even Guadagnino’s vaunted style sense betrays him here. The authentic, albeit trivial, sumptuousness of décor and location in “Call Me By Your Name” here yields to Euro-noir clichés, a just-good-enough set of period approximations that seem desensualized, devoid of physicality. For a movie about dance and movement, “Suspiria” is oddly turgid and dispersed, showing notions of performance and flashes of motion without a single distinctive idea about what a camera can do with dance and dancers—and, for that matter, without a glimmer of psychological curiosity about the discipline and the art. (Two lines of dialogue, one delivered by Susie about dancing being “like what it would feel like to fuck” and another, by Madame Blanc, about fusing with a choreographer’s vision, play not like reflections on art but like another few glittery appliqués.)
The pictorial dullness of Guadagnino’s direction, together with the mere and impersonal mechanisms of Kajganich’s script, render their “Suspiria” an oddly echo-free, unhaunted experience: there’s virtually no inner life, no subjective vision to suggest the thoughts and feelings of the women in the company, whether the young protagonist and her fellow-dancers or, for that matter, the ostensible artists who are running it. A few nightmarish dream sequences, telepathically commanded by Madame Blanc, are impersonally decorative and cliché-riddled. Even the gory violence is reduced to a smattering of cut-in details. A sequence of sheer body horror—the possession of Olga, who, locked in a mirrored studio, is snapped and broken in a destructive double of Susie’s admired, uninhibited dance—is filmed in flashes that owe much more to the crafted sound effects than to the images. The only shot that seems to excite Guadagnino in the sequence is the aftermath—the trail of blood on the floor that passes the death chamber’s mirrored door. His attention throughout appears more fixated on the thin, curved hooks used by the witches to pierce and drag bodies than on any dramatized experience.
The original “Suspiria” is already symbolically reverberant in its frenzied vision of young women searching for mother substitutes and becoming vulnerable to older women whose powers of creation are matched by their powers of destruction. The earlier film already suggested a gory matriarchy that destructively perpetuates its hermetic and secretive reign. But in the new film the tinsel-trove of historical and political themes have the odd effect of subordinating those female-centered themes to a blandly familiar grab bag of sensationalistic headlines, which Guadagnino dangles in a manner that’s both bombastic (stretching to nearly two and a half lugubrious hours) and trivializing (because they are merely affixed to characters as traits). These thematic index cards include the very name of the company’s choreographer, Madame Blanc—French for “Mrs. White” (who even exhorts Susie to learn French), whose big production is a dance called “Volk” (“people,” in the nationalistic sense). As for Susie, she’s not merely from a small Midwestern town; she is also said to be Mennonite and thus defined to be repressed and naïve; yet the movie can’t be bothered to delve into her life beyond the company’s walls, or, for that matter, that of any of her colleagues (a subject that the original film treated amply and effortlessly.)
For all the new movie’s talking points, any random shot of Jessica Harper in Argento’s “Suspiria” has more vitality, presence, and resonance than even the most dramatic ones by Guadagnino of Johnson, not because of a difference in talent between the actresses, but because Argento sees Harper. Guadagnino is so busy directing a movie about women in the abstract, witchcraft in the abstract, dance in the abstract, terrorism in the abstract, the Holocaust in the abstract, Berlin and Germany in the abstract, that he doesn’t see the people, the places, the characters that he’s filming. His camera sees nothing.