If you've ever been through rebirthing, an experiential therapeutic process that gained popularity in the 70's as a way of purging traumatic childhood memories, then you already know it to be a mind-altering experience akin to a psychedelia journey through one's cellular being that feels as if you've been shapeshifted and distorted like a toy Slinky winding its way down some grand staircase.
You also know, of course, that it's complete and utter bullshit, an overwhelmingly discredited process that takes already fragile minds and makes them more fragile. It's one of a myriad of cult-like therapeutic interventions designed by people who mean well, though they haven't a fucking clue what they're doing and they often do more damage than good.
Unless, of course, it's worked for you.
Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria is a masterpiece, a rebirthing of sorts of Dario Argento's iconic horror classic. Rest assured that Guadagnino's Suspiria is neither sequel nor remake and even calling it a re-imagining feels wholly inadequate. Guadagnino's Suspiria is a carnal rebirthing of Suspiria, a perfectly manifested purging and merging of Argento's 1977 masterpiece that somehow manages to still find its life sustaining blood within Argento's visionary work.
When Tilda Swinton's Madame Blanc reflects upon rebirth and "the inevitable pull they exert and our efforts to escape them," she is talking not just about the rather stunning dance production Volk but of the entire journey of Suspiria and all its words and images and characters and even the oft-unspoken transitions that mark the film's six acts and epilogue over the course of its just over 2 1/2 hour running time.
The story itself is deceptively simple. Susie Bannion, a young woman hailing from an Ohio Mennonite family, is admitted to West Berlin's esteemed Markos Dance Academy yet finds herself arriving at a divisive time made more divisive by the disappearance of a student, Patricia Hingle, not long after her claims of Markos being controlled by a coven of witches is abruptly dismissed by a consulting psychotherapist, Josef Klemperer.
Of course, Suspiria is not simple.
I could, in fact, spend practically this entire review doing nothing but unpacking the thematic elements that reveal themes in Suspiria, some returning from Argento's original film and others fresh from Guadagnino's visionary filmmaking and the script by David Kagjanich. While thematically dense, Suspiria is equally entertaining though there's no question this kind of entertaining isn't necessarily the kind of entertaining one typically finds in the multiplexes. It's the kind of entertaining that immerses you in its world, a sort of virtual reality phantasmagoria of thought and wonder, Jungian archetypes and paranoid delusions.
The film opens with Chloe Grace Moretz's Patricia Hingle Dr. Klemperer dismissing her psychotic ramblings about witches and rituals as nothing more than laughable delusions. This scene, while relatively brief, is essential to all that Guadagnino creates here as Jungian's essential archetypes abound and are revisited throughout much of Suspiria. Dr. Klemperer, a wise old man with a twist, has his own therapeutic interventions informed not so much by technique but by survivor's guilt and Guadagnino's fem-dominated Suspiria equally fueled by a sort of male-dominated feminist gaze that manipulatively seduces.
While I've long considered Argento's Suspiria one of the great horror films of all-time, Guadagnino's Suspiria is a film that feels just as vital and just as necessary and just as satisfying. It's a stand alone film that doesn't really stand alone. They are both stunningly crafted films, Argento's neon glitter replaced by Guadagnino's daringly understated color palette and Thom Yorke's willfully melancholic original score that practically rocks and sways back and forth. Damien Jalet's original choreography is violently hypnotic, its German expressionistic stylings period appropriate and as essential to the story as the plot itself. Guadagnino manages to pay homage to Argento without Suspiria ever being burdened by such homage. Tipping his cinematic hat to Argento's Mother of Tears trilogy, he uses darkness, tears, and sighs to serve as the foundation of the divisions that reveal themselves as Suspiria winds and jolts its way toward its inevitably cataclysmic conclusion.
There is a strong feminism that undergirds every moment of Suspiria, though in a film both directed and written by men it remains, rather ironically, a feminism viewed through the masculine lens as is true of Klemperer and others throughout the film. Of course, there is a twist. There's always a twist and it's the kind of twist that leaves me thinking I may be right or I may be wrong even as I sit here trying to assuredly write this review.
Performances are exceptional across the board from Moretz's stark vulnerability to Johnson's feral physicality to Mia Goth's mesmerizing mysticism and, perhaps most notably, Swinton's career-defining performance in a career filled with career-defining performances. Swinton's, in particular, is a performance that deserves to be remembered come awards season if the film can only manage to find enough of an audience to make it a player as the year winds down.
Suspiria is most certainly, and somewhat unexpectedly, one of the year's truly great films, a masterpiece in every sense of the word and the kind of film that demands multiple viewings and late night conversations rehashing its images and symbolism and deeper meanings. Some will hate it, some always hate the best films, but rest assured that for the true cineaste this film will remain one for the ages.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic