Luca Guadagnino, the director of Call Me By Your Name, has made a film about witches, or at least a film about a film about witches. Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is a variation on Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, in which the young Susie Bannion arrives from America to attend a storied German dance academy, only to discover the women running the show are in fact a coven of murderous witches, and that she and her fellow dancers are in grave danger. The fairy tale premise gives Argento space to luxuriate in expressionist sets and lurid palettes, creating a psychodrama that is also strangely delightful. While Guadagnino’s film also luxuriates (at two and half hours long) he has surgically removed the camp and stapled the story relentlessly to its moment, the divided city of Berlin in 1977, inviting us to read the events within the academy as an allegory for Cold War political upheavals and the still-fresh traumas of World War II, while handling his materials so hamfistedly as to muddle any meaningful conclusions. The new Suspiria is more or less a goth wedding cake.
While the original cloisters its characters within the fantastically unreal academy, this movie opens insistently onto the world, or at least the news. A leftist vanguard is terrorizing West Germany, kidnapping and murdering prominent capitalists and Nazi holdovers in public life. Madame Blanc (played by Tilda Swinton) is directing a revival of Volk, a dance piece born out of the coven’s ordeal during the Nazi era. “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing,” she instructs the ensemble. We quickly realize that Guadagnino’s real monster is History and the deformations it’s wrung, which seems promising, but as the film yanks us through its paces it becomes clear that the argument is mostly extravagant gibberish.
In particular, Guadagnino’s penchant for employing memories (personal, collective, national) with the same excess and avidity that Argento employs technicolor and gore creates a lot of problems. Hazily-sketched backstories abound: Susie Bannion is in this version inexplicably Amish, her origins revealed Don-Draper-style in a series of cartoonish vignettes featuring rusted sauce pans and obligatory farm equipment. Dr. Jozef Klemperer (also played by Swinton in old man drag) often stares at a picture of his disappeared Jewish wife. The witches themselves speak in passing about the war, but these story lines are shoe-horned in rather than organically developed.
Guadagnino, in other words, converts history into mood, and style. This is also incidentally what fascists do. While the new Suspiria seems to offer the bloody ascendancy of the coven a generation after the war as a liberating corrective to the misogyny inherent in both Nazism and its resistors, the film’s implicit argument that all of politics is essentially cultic cancels out whatever revolutionary impulse it might be suggesting.
There is, despite the film’s pretensions, plenty to enjoy here, and I confess I loved Suspiria while the spell lasted. Swinton dazzles as Madame Blanc, the company’s painfully stylish artistic director and a perennial close second in the contest for coven Supreme, and the coven itself, featuring legendary actresses of the New German Cinema Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven, is enchanting to watch in its deliberations and at murderous play. Those who buy tickets to see a group of talented women fuck shit up will not be disappointed.
In many ways we already knew that Guadagnino’s vision of aesthetics-as-seduction is out of tune with a moment in which audiences have come to demand that a film wield its content with political care for the bodies trampled under by its representations. The main criticism of Call Me By Your Name—that it was yet another Rich White Gay story that carelessly neglected to explore its own politics—was tempered by the fact that that film takes adolescence as its material, and makes, in its adamantly sensuous approach, an adolescent of the film-goer. Where Call Me By Your Name was a film about innocence, Suspiria is a film about guilt, and a similarly gaudy approach, when tacked onto the subject matter of twentieth century fascism and the Holocaust, results in a deeply confused, confusing film. Excess in the pursuit of Armie Hammer and apricot juice is perhaps forgivable. In the pursuit of half-assed morality tales drawn from the wreckage of still-living traumas, it’s stupid at best.
I was unhappily reminded throughout of Quentin Tarantino, specifically his pair of historical revisions, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, in which the calamities of Nazism and American chattel slavery are ground up and repackaged in the splashy conventions of genre film like so much cinematic sausage. This kind of irreverent gesture might be liberating in a context in which such events had been processed, rectified, and reparations made. In the midst of our own tilt toward fascism, they’re trivializing and reckless. While Guadagnino does handle his materials with considerably more care than Tarantino in those films, there is still something distressing in his willingness to play fast and loose with these topics, particularly because it’s obvious that he should know better.
I wish this movie had been about witches.
James Loop is a writer living in New York. You can find him online in Hyperallergic, the Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, and @jimmytheloop.