In the annals of films that can be classified as “unsettling,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority that doesn’t involve the occult, witchcraft, or something considered “blasphemous.” Even to someone like myself, who is more Jodie Foster in Contact than Matthew McConaughey in the same movie – in terms of philosophy, I mean – stories dealing with the surrounding and ever enveloping unknown are truly creepy and chilling, tapping into the fear we all share of the metaphorical suddenly becoming literal. “Stay cast aside in folklore,” we beg. “Dare not jump off the page,” we cry.
Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me By Your Name) homage to/expansion of Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria is not an easy watch. From the onset to the finale, it is filled with a sinister tension that only comes loose in an explosion of gory violence, ritualistic synergy, grotesque monstrosity, and near orgasmic release. Were it not for the candies I was eating carefully, my jaw would’ve dropped many times throughout. I sweated profusely in the theater, shook and amazed by just how beyond “the ecstasy of evil” (coined by Werner Herzog) a movie could reach.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that our Suspiria (“our” as it is assuredly a movie for/of now) is somehow nihilistic or villainous in its depiction of theme and transformation of the original story, or in its treatment of the audience. Rather, it revels in the delights of self first and foremost, being a film that is absolutely proud to bring about panic, to be a tale of consensual and forced sacrifice, to demand multiple viewings from those interested in diving deeper (this will be on Amazon Prime sooner than later).
It’s no secret that this adaptation is about a coven of witches in 1970s Berlin, operating a dance academy that gains the interest of a young woman from America. From this premise, things go and grow steadily and surely towards madness, which is achieved breathlessly and without haste, only to ramp up in increments. Suspiria’s narrative here is almost secondary to its primary mood establishing/escalating and heavy, if mysterious, themes of collective guilt and shame, of the horrors wrought by man and woman alike, and of any reconciliation of these ideas that may be possible. This is a movie not unlike a breathable fog moving over town, hiding uncertainty in the air while making beauty of its movements. There’s something about that juxtaposition I find comforting, like a siren beckoning sailors to danger. Wait…
Indeed, when the arcs converge, they change and alter those left around, allegory and character alike. Indeed, there is a story being told, but be warned of its layers and twisting/twisted nature. And indeed, this is not your father’s Argento. It’s not even Argento’s Argento. In dire threat of having my credentials as a critic revoked, may I state that this may be Guadagnino’s Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut influences and all, indeed.
When a film can confound and rattle your brain, your standards, and even your ideals to a degree, it has at the very least made a mark. A mark out of you or on you depends on how others read into your thoughts of it. Nevertheless, Suspiria is cinematic science, which is not unlike mythological witchcraft and sorcery. It’s expressionism that is frighteningly effective and affecting, if very much deviously manipulative (which I suppose most films are). The beads of sweat coming off my brow and from my pits made for some discomfort but didn’t rival the uncomfortable horror, the unnerving attractiveness, and ultimately the deeply embedded sounds and images the film put forth.
I bet I’ll be wrestling with Suspiria some more in the coming months, over details involving the word “how” mostly. Of course, to dissect the film to figure out what happened narratively wouldn’t just be futile, but also misguided. This is a movie best to be contested with by feeling more than anything. It’s not exactly a soap opera, mind you, where continuity is (kind of) key. Suspiria is no riddle wrapped in an enigma but it is rich with unspoken but understood behavior, registered by that charge running up and down the spine. Off the screen and into your dreams and nightmares, this film goes. Our begs and cries prove useless when faced with the imagination of others. Just go with it.
RATING: 5 / 5
Suspiria is currently playing at The Broad Theater.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.