We, Joule and Kim, are two cinephiles with a complicated love for Dario Argento's 1977 giallo* Suspiria, the tale of an American ingenue who finds out her German dance school is hiding a coven. So we asked to review Luca Guadagnino's Dakota Johnson-starring remake together. The original idea was to have a dialogue; as it happened, we ended up united in bafflement.
Kim: As the film ended and the credits began to roll, I turned to Joule, intending to ask her what she thought, and saw a look of complete, almost paralyzed bewilderment stretched across her face. Instead of trading ideas, we just started laughing. That one facial expression was exactly how I felt, too—I have no idea what this movie was, for whom it was made, or why it is necessary as a new entry into the modern horror canon.
So we’ll start with what I know to be good: Tilda Swinton.
Lithe and energized, Swinton swans through each scene as if her actual day job were as a celebrated dance instructor and ancient enchantress, rather than as an actress in this film.** Swinton's performance is buttressed by the litany of fantastic womxn cast in this movie, each playing complex, engaged characters tasked with performing bizarre contortions of personality (and also of body) as this film grinds to a dizzying halt.
And the bad: Dakota Johnson. Sweet, sweet Dakota. The issue here is that her character is really two parts, split clean through by a central fissure of nature. The first she plays just fine, mildly succeeding as a simple Amish girl hoping to be a dancer. The second part of this character finds her flailing, searching frantically for any semblance of confidence, security, or personal power, but concluding with only deep mediocrity in what should have been the most impactful act of the film.
Her inability to stick the landing isn’t actually her fault—she shouldn’t have been cast in Suspiria to begin with. But this clear failure of vision mirrors the trajectory of the film itself, which bounces along at a medium pace until the sixth act, in which it not only drops the ball, it chucks the ball completely out the window.
Joule: Indeed, playing against Tilda Swinton, Angela Winkler, Sylvie Testud, and every other famous Continental character actress from the 1990s, not to mention her expressive contemporary Mia Goth, does not inspire Dakota Johnson to feats of virtuosity. Trying to emote at all seems to absorb most of her abilities, setting aside anything supernatural.
The movie is nevertheless most intriguing when exploring a barely subtextual romance between Swinton and Johnson. Swinton pauses from showing off her eggplant-colored Martha Graham dress to embody a hungry interest in her protegée as a rival, a daughter figure, or a potential lover. But this doesn't bear fruit.
Nor does Suspiria's attempt at dense symbolic complexity along the lines of witchcraft = organized religion = modern art = love = Fascism = death orgies. It’s more ambitious than Argento's predilection for lecherous male bloodlust, but it's ultimately confusing. The pulpy story snarls itself in references to the Holocaust and the RAF hostage crisis in divided Germany. The cultlike activity seems like a reaction to trauma, but this premise, while heavily implied, is never actually fleshed out. Nor is the violence by older women against their young students explained as part of this dynamic.
This is a bummer for those who just wanted to enjoy a horror/dance film with artsy flair and flamboyant production design. Suspiria gets about halfway there, which makes it worth watching for lovers of the unflinchingly grotesque—a scene in which a young woman is forced to break her own bones dancing is as horrifying as anything I've ever seen in fiction film—but disappointing for seekers of the emotional fluency of Call Me By Your Name.
Fans of giallo and European grandes dames should probably see Suspiria, but feel free to bail before it turns into a satanic Thom Yorke music video.
*Film studies major note: Giallo is a term for a genre of bloody Italian thrillers that reached its heyday in the 1960s and '70s.
**Joule: Not to mention that she dresses in aging makeup and drag to play the only male principal in the film, a fairly useless German psychiatrist with a tragic past. The indefatigable woman probably could have assumed every role in the damn film.