"It's Time to Break the Noses of All Beautiful Things"

(Italy/USA, 152 min.)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino, Writ. David Kajganich
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Moretz, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Jessica Harper
Dakota Johnson and cast
“It’s time to break the noses of all beautiful things,” declares Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to Susie (Dakota Johnson) during a devilish dance in Suspiria. There are many broken bones and bloodied beauties in Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeously macabre Suspiria, and many a horror fan is bound to be tickled pink by the cries of pain and pleasure that echo throughout the film. One major difference between this Suspiria and the 1977 Dario Argento original is the sheer amount of dancing as sequences punctuate the film with violent, staccato rhythms. Both films take place in a dance studio/coven in divided Berlin, but the dancing in the classic is almost incidental whereas the stylish moves of the new film are essential to the spell it casts. This wild dance party is even better than the original Suspiria.

Argento’s Suspiria benefits from an update. A pivotal work from the master of Italian giallo movies, the original film is a highly stylized gore-fest. It’s an art film masquerading as a B-movie with a blood-soaked palette of reds and blues set to a wonderfully operatic score. It’s a frenzied assault of sensory overload with over-the-top performances that shriek and scream within a bizarre web of plot holes. It's a product of its time, and best enjoyed as such.

But to fix a nose, one must first break it. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (who wrote the director’s A Bigger Splash) take Argento’s nose and break it with a resounding crack, crack, crack. It might be painful to die-hard Suspiria fans, but it becomes something better and beautiful by the film’s end.

This Suspiria is not so much a remake as a re-imagining of the Argento film. Guadagnino does a fine service to both Argento and fans of the original by creating something altogether new. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, for example, contains not a hint of the highly saturated palettes of the original, opting instead for muted colour tones and dizzying camerawork to cast a cinematic spell. Suspiria lets the original film stand in its own right, and as a classic example of the culturally specific period in which it was produced, while improving upon the biggest flaws of the original, such as story and performance.

The film again sees plucky American ingénue Susie Bannion take a grand jeté to Berlin in hopes of landing a spot in world-renowned Helena Markos Dance Company where Madame Blanc is its famed teacher. Luckily, a spot opens since the lead ballerina, Pat (Chloë Grace Moretz) exited the company under mysterious circumstance just before Susie arrives. One difference that signals to viewers that this Suspiria doesn’t follow the formula of the original—and arguably the one way in which Guadagnino’s film majorly errs—is that Argento bumps off Pat in about two seconds, offering an operatic savaging of the young girl to start the party. The new Suspiria lets Moretz’s insufferable histrionics go on for nearly ten minutes as Pat details theories about  a triumvirate of witches within the Markos company coven to her psychiatrist. Morets is the only performer in the film trying to channel the over-the-top acting style of giallo and she’s just terrible presence that can't exit the film soon enough.

Don’t let Moretz’s ridiculous performance bid you to the doors. Let the scene’s other actor, Lutz Ebersdorf, cast a spell as the elderly psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer in whom Pat confides. Ebersdorf, a new character in the Suspiria cinematic universe, is really Tilda Swinton in an elaborate make-up job, and her dual role adds a unique dynamic to the picture.

One might not immediately recognize Swinton under so many gobs of make-up, but the more Klemperer looks into the dangers of the dance company, and the closer one looks at Klemperer and then again at Madame Blanc in the scenes that follow, one might see the resemblance in their frames, noses, and eyes. The likeness between the characters creates an aura of possession, as if Madame Blanc pulls the strings from outside the doctor’s office, spying on her protégés and practicing witchcraft from afar. The parallel also reminds audiences that witches aren't the only form of darkness. Evil exists in the natural world, as evidenced by the niggling guilt on Dr. Ebersdorf's conscious as he recalls how his complacency allowed his long lost wife (played by Jessica Harper, the original Suspiria's Suzy) to be taken by the Gestapo. These memories become interconnected with the greater spell the coven casts as the fight between good and evil soldiers on.

Swinton’s work in Suspiria is truly remarkable as she disappears beneath the skin of multiple characters, creating unique personas in this enigmatic tale of bewitching beauty. Her Madame Blanc is not a conventional witch, although Swinton probably looks great with a pointy hat and broomstick, and instead charms her young innocents by feeding their talents and nurturing their passions. She’s a stern maternal figure, cool as ice without a hint of warmth, as she circles the dance floor, pushing the students to their limits while harnessing their youthful spirits for her powers.

A war wages throughout the dance company just as Berlin finds itself divided. There is dissension in the ranks as the coven’s two mothers, Blanc and the unseen Markos, vie for leadership. Blanc loses the vote to lead the household, and the development of the Blanc/Susie relationship adds to the recipe for witchcraft as the crafty fiends seek out young bodies and souls to ensure their immortality. Guadagnino builds this enigmatic tension into the film through violent flashbacks to Susie’s childhood farm. The haunting score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sends tingles down one’s spine for all 152 of the film’s spectacular minutes, as echoes of Susie’s childhood and dead mother infiltrate her dreams in Berlin.

Teaming up again after A Bigger Splash, Swinton and Johnson have electric screen chemistry as Madame Blanc seduces Susie (and Susie seduces her) with the glory of the lead role. This part is the ultimate sacrifice for the longevity of the coven and, unbeknownst to Susie, the girl throws herself headlong into Madame Blanc’s most famous choreography, offering herself as lamb for the ritual slaughter as she puts her youth on display. The girlish precociousness of Johnson’s performance provides the right tinge of innocence for the witch’s spell, casting the young actress as a true ingénue, but also a calculating dreamer hiding behind a mask of naïveté. While the Suzy of the original is all scared-as-shit on the surface, Johnson plays an innocent while dropping hints that this strong, fiery-haired girl is not as she appears. There is a rich duality to the dynamics of seduction and possession as Blanc and Susie commit themselves to perfecting the dance, and Suspiria pulses as the virtually all-female cast bends and snaps in the service of the mother of all witches.

Suspiria culminates in a climatic buffet of sex and violence as the curtain falls on the dance company. This elaborately staged feat is as far from giallo as one can get as it harkens back to the folkloric aspects of horror and witchcraft. This Suspiria isn’t about shocks, scares, blood, and gore: it’s about the haunting uncertainties of faith, spirit, and the self. It is great horror—bare, brutal, and beautiful.

Suspiria opens in Canada on Nov. 2 from ABMO Films.