SUSPIRIA 2018: Death To Duality

This contains spoilers!

To remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria is an act of madness. The original is as much defined by its visuals and its soundtrack as its plot or characters; in fact, as is the case with some of the great Italian master’s films, it’s the filmmaking that makes 1977’s Suspiria as consequential as it is. What’s the point of remaking a movie that so fully is marked by its creator, that is so much the product of one mind, one filmmaking industry, of one time?

The point, Luca Guadagnino contends, is to do the same again – to make a movie whose filmmaking is as consequential as its plot, whose style is as important as its characters, whose soundtrack is a living part of the whole, and whose style is absolutely unique and specific to its new director. Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria is a masterwork on its own, but it’s also one that approaches Argento’s movie – and his entire Three Mothers mythology – with just the right mixture of reverence and revisionism. I love the 1977 Suspiria, and I love the 2018 version as well, in its own way.

That the movie is set in 1977 is a nice touch; not only is the film set in the time of the original, this is the first hint we get at the movie’s obsession with duality. There are two Suspirias now, and they’re both happening at the same time; Guadagnino didn’t update the time or make it more modern (he doesn’t have to; part of Suspiria 2018’s thematic point is that the duality of past/present is a false one), and he didn’t leave room for this to be a soft reboot.

As in the 1977 film, an American woman comes to a Berlin dance studio to study with the greats, learning that she has actually stumbled into a coven that is the front for a powerful and ancient witch. Character names, broad outlines, conceptual ideas – Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich take these whole from the original. There’s a skeletal outline in the 2018 version that is similar to the shape of the 1977 (at least until the end), but within that outline Guadagnino truly plays and lets himself loose to do intriguing new things.

One of the first big changes you’ll notice between the original and the remake is that the ballet is gone, replaced with modern dance. This reflects Guadagnino’s understanding not just of the witches, but of women in general. In Argento’s version the ballet was a work of precise grace and beauty, beneath which was hiding this coven fronted by a terrible hag. Argento’s Suspiria has the witches presenting a false face, maintaining something ancient and primal – Mater Suspiriorum – beneath a veneer of civilization. But in Guadagnino’s film the modern dance connects the coven to their pre-Christian roots; the purpose of dance in ritual and in ancient times was to express and connect the most fundamental emotions and desires.

(Side note: it’s likely that the works of Madame Blanc would have been considered ‘degenerate art’ during the Nazi era. Germany was one of the birthplaces of modern dance, but during the war many dancers left the country; Goebbels decreed that dance “must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy,” a decree Blanc was very much violating.)

For Argento women are two-faced, while for Guadagnino they’re showing you themselves at all times – you’re just not seeing what’s right in front of you. He draws an explicit link between art and magic, and especially between dance and witchcraft, with the dance troupe naturally emulating a coven, and with the dance moves taking on the nature of spells – repetitive and coded messages that impact reality around them. This becomes literal in one of the most brutal scenes committed to film in recent years; as Susie throws herself into the dance her movements connect magically with the body of Olga, taking the girl and twisting her, mutilating her, breaking her with each throw of arm and leg. The dance is the spell, and the spell is the dance, and what’s more the method of assassination is dance itself – Olga dances herself into a grotesque, urinating, drooling, bleeding pile of bones and skin.

It’s here that we get a sense of what Guadagnino is doing with duality – he is embracing it and denying it. The dance moves are dance moves but they’re also spells, and the spells are spells but they’re also dance moves. Guadagnino’s approach to the nature of duality reminded me of Zen wisdom, and especially this passage from Shunryu Suzuki’s seminal Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular.

Your legs, crossed, become one, yet they are two. They are one and two simultaneously; for Guadagnino duality isn’t about separation but about connection – the things exist together, not as polar opposites.

This is why setting the film in Berlin is so important. Sure, it’s the setting of the original, but for Guadagnino the city divided takes on new meaning. In 1977 if you saw Berlin as one city you were wrong, but if you saw it as two cities you were also wrong. It is one city and yet two, divided and yet whole.

You see the demolition of duality in the way he uses Tilda Swinton; if you don’t understand the thematic thrust established, having Swinton play the male doctor Klemperer (AND the bloated crone Helena Markos) seems like a cheeky casting trick. But it’s more than that; by having Swinton play male (the only major male role, mind you) and female, Guadagnino is exploring duality while exploding it. He does the same by having her play rivals Blanc and Markos – they are at cross-purposes, yet they are the same actress. They are opposites who are one. Klemperer, meanwhile, can cross between the two cities that are one, and he exists (not literally) in two times – the present but also the past, which he carries with him. To think that the past and the present are separate is both correct and foolish.

The dualities keep coming – the film is fascinated in the idea of true and false mothers, but eventually reveals there to be no such thing, as the Mother of Sighs was within Susie the whole time. Her birth mother is at once a real and a false mother – she bore Susie, but did not behave towards her as a real mother. Again, Guadagnino uses his casting playfully – Malgorzata Beta plays both Susie’s mother in the flashback and also Death, the beast that crawls forth during the final ritual.

Duality explodes like heads do at the end of the movie; we spend the whole film not truly understanding Susie’s artistic drive, and perhaps thinking that she’s a pawn in all that is happening, but in the end she makes the most profound statement about the collaborative arts possible. She, as a performer, is looking to erase the distance between herself and Blanc, the originator of the dance – she is both herself but also the vessel of the art. She WANTS to become one with it, while maintaining her wholeness. And so at the end she is Susie AND the Mother.

All of this peaks in the brilliant, splattery finale, when the spastic undulations of the naked, blood-drenched witches slows down; what had been a frightening and primal dance becomes now graceful and glorious as Susie declares that the ugliness is beautiful. “This is not art!” screams Markos, but she’s wrong, as there’s no line between art and life, just as there’s no line between dance and spells.

That ending, by the way, is a big part of why I love this movie. The original Suspiria was an art film masquerading as genre schlock (before you get mad at me about this, know that genre films were taken way way way less seriously back in 1977), while this is genre schlock masquerading as an art film. But again, it’s all about the destruction of duality, so each of the films are art and schlock, and schlock and art. That said, Suspiria 2018 really plays its cards remarkably well, spending most of its 2 hour runtime looking and feeling like a standard modern ‘elevated genre’ movie. When the slow burn finally gets to the end of the fuse the resulting explosion is glorious, the greatest depiction of magickal madness since the last scene of the (also slow burning) The Witch.

One of the ways that Guadagnino approaches his slow burn is to make the first two hours of the film more muted, in terms of color. Argento’s film is famous for its dazzling color scheme, while the 2018 version looks more like what we think of as 1977 Cold War Berlin – drizzly, grey, concrete. Until the end; the bloody finale shocks all the more when it comes as the exclamation point at the end of this particular sentence. It truly blows your hair back because you’re not sure the movie is willing to go as far as it does; yes there are some difficult and occult scenes, but the finale is a huge leap into madness, a total unhinging that reminded me of how 2001: A Space Odyssey just took the lid off for its famous psychedelic journey.

But at the very end Guadagnino pulls it back; Mater Suspiriorum shows up to Klemperer and gives him forgiveness for his past. It’s a small, personal moment that is shockingly effective, especially since the two characters don’t even really know one another. They exist here rather as strange types, representing dissolution of all boundaries. There’s Klemperer, who is living in the past as well as the present and who is also Madame Blanc, and then there’s Susie, who is both Susie and Suspiriorum, and they have a discussion about guilt and forgiveness. It is here, when we see the lines dissolved between past, present and eventually future (the shot of the East Berlin home in the modern day is a wonderful capstone to everything), that we see healing and hope.

Tilda Swinton is simply fantastic in her roles; while as Klemperer she is at the mercy of some rather thick makeup, but I think she inhabits the man well. Just the way she breathes as Klemperer is real and true, and I think it’s a testament to her skill that the thick makeup doesn’t distract fully. But as Blanc she’s totally wonderful, and I love the character. Swinton plays her as cruel and kind, fitting in a movie that finds all dichotomies false. It’s easy to get hung up on the ‘stunt’ aspect of the casting, but for me it’s so perfect, so well thought out, that I marveled at every moment.

Dakota Johnson intrigues me. I have never found her particularly charismatic – the Fifty Shades films suffered for me because of this – and for most of Suspiria 2018 this proved true. But at the end, when she shows up with a vagina in her chest, everything changes. Something seems to have been unlocked in Johnson when she plays Mater Suspiriorum, and all of a sudden I found her to be captivating. Even quietly sitting at Klemperer’s bedside she is engaging on every emotional level. But here’s the thing: her blankness plays very well in context for the first two hours, and her casting is a masterstroke. Susie wants to be subsumed into art, and she is only whole when she is connected fully with a master artist/witch. As a result Johnson is incredible.

Here’s what I hope, and forgive me for the heresy: I hope Guadagnino remakes ALL of the Three Mothers films. He already tackled the greatest of them, and I can’t imagine anyone would blink at him remaking Mother of Tears. Inferno might get the hardcore up in arms, but I think that he has approached the larger mythology with such reverence and smarts that he could do all three and put his own mark on them while respecting what came before.

At the very least Suspiria 2018 is an exciting move from the director, showing that he refuses to be shoved in any particular box. It’s certainly not the movie I would have expected from him next after loving Call Me By Your Name, that’s for sure. Suspiria 2018 is as unexpected as a movie can be.

There’s so much more to say about Suspiria 2018. This is a great movie, one of the great remakes, and a fascinating work in its own right. The confusion and puzzlement with which it has been met indicates, to me, that it’s an all-timer; people will revisit this film in a decade and wonder why we weren’t all running around meme-ing the shit out of it when it was released. The reality, of course, is that Suspiria 2018 is both super meme-able but also resistant to being reduced in such a way. This is a movie whose strangeness and playfulness conceals great depths of meaning and emotion, depths that will be plumbed in years to come.