“Sometimes I’ll just start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way.”
- Michael Scott
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is as self-serious, spasmodic, and incoherent as any of the Radiohead music videos that precede it. But it differentiates itself from its ilk by transforming over its 152 minutes (pretty long for a music video!) into the cinematic equivalent of having one’s organs slowly ripped out and replaced by something far gooier. As a danse macabre through the halls of a West Berlin-based dance academy in the 1970s, it succeeds in its mission to unsettle, but as a larger treatise on...anything really, it shoots for the depths of the underworld and falls a bit short in the trying.
(I’m only having a bit of a laugh about the music video thing. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke does provide a haunting, proper sad sack score for this film, as only the premier haunted sad sack can. It’s quite good.)
Probably the most consistently unsettling thing about this film is its cinematography. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s messy camerawork goes a long way toward invoking the magic of 70s cinema as his camera loops and wanders and snaps all around the school. As he glides between and orbits around the young talented women of the Markos Dance Academy his snap zooms suddenly compound the paranoia oozing from every frame of the film. Thanks in huge part to his work, many quiet moments throughout Suspiria feel like intrusions, like we’re not supposed to be seeing what we’re seeing. And indeed, in the several cases of exquisite body horror on display throughout the film, it might have been better for some had they just looked away.
At the center of the academy is artistic director Madame Blanc, played by the incredible Tilda Swinton. Swinton is a global treasure. There’s not much more that can be said about this. As the elegant, conflicted Blanc, she’s the beautiful yet frightening teacher you dare not disappoint. As Josef Klemperer, the geriatric (male) psychotherapist, she’s a wounded figure, all slumped shoulders and tired eyes. And as for the other character she plays, well...best to see for yourself. Her performances are as convincing as they are varied, and she should probably win a bunch of awards for pulling it all off.
The rest of the cast is basically perfect, and watching them dance around and psychically murder one another is a treat, but Suspiria winds up being much too long for its own good. A cool 30-40 minutes excised from this tumor-ridden film would work wonders to give its ideas more resonance and clarity. Writer David Kajganich’s script calls for “six acts and an epilogue in divided Berlin.” To which I say, “how about three acts and let’s let bygones be bygones?” By the time that epilogue title card rolls around, your body has sort of naturally geared up for the film to be over, but Guadagnino takes a page out the Peter Jackson’s Return of the King playbook and never allows his moody, cerebral dance number to end. It’s quite possible that I am still in the theater, scraping the bottom of an empty bucket of popcorn, mumbling to myself.
(Hilariously, the movie is even longer than I originally thought. It wasn’t until I left the theater that I discovered that Suspiria has a post-credits “stinger.” Listen, we’re going to all have to get on the same page on this post-credits situation. Do all movies have them? Or do no movies have them? Those are your two options.)
Suspiria is not a great movie. But it is an interesting one. And sometimes being interesting is better than being great. The film is built around big ideas. It’s soaked through with themes of post-war guilt, female empowerment, and the dangers of extremist ideologies, but by its end these ideas don’t cohere into a satisfying whole.
Maybe that’s the point Kajganich and Guandagnino are trying to make. Perhaps the real message behind Suspiria is that all of the notions it’s attempting to interrogate are naturally intertwined, always caught up in one another, deconstructing and reconstructing each other over time. Perhaps they can never truly be unwound and parsed, because ultimately they are each an appendage belonging to the same creature. An exquisite, rotting corpse waiting for us to put on our dancing shoes and to start spinning around the blood-soaked floor.