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Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is a spellbinding incantation

Dakota Johnson stars as Susie in SUSPIRIA 

Those who watched Luca Guadagnino’s previous film “Call Me By Your Name” will undoubtedly remember a now infamous scene with a peach. If you can, try and recall your emotions as you squirmed in your seat, uncomfortable as you tried to come to terms with the obscenity unfolding before your eyes. It’s not so much the outrageousness that shocks you, but the intimacy in which the director and cinematographer handle such strangeness. If your feelings in that moment could be amplified into an entire film, then you’d have Guadagnino's reimagining of the cult classic “Suspiria.”

Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” disembowels the original and inhabits its skin. While still recognizable compared to Dario Argento’s version, its mannerisms ─ the way it moves, even what it is trying to say ─ are brand new. The basic premise remains the same; a young American dancer named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) moves to Germany in 1977 (the year of the original film’s release) in order to attend the prestigious Markos Dance Academy. Unbeknown to her, Susie is actually in the presence of a coven of witches. While this fact was the crux of the 1977 film (you have had 40 years to see it), Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” establishes this early. With the exception of a few characters, this is where the similarities die.

“Suspiria” is as cruel and unforgiving as any film in the last decade. Gore and graphic violence is nothing new to horror, and it constantly feels as if filmmakers are constantly trying to outdo one another with the obscenities they manage to get on screen. “Suspiria” diverts from the pack by bringing gravity to this violence. You feel every break, every slice and every contortion in this movie. This is a result of the viewers caring deeply about those involved. From Susie, to her perplexed friend and fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) to the matronly Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), there is something to latch onto from each character.

If there was a weak link it would be the hapless Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton in dizzying prosthetic makeup), who’s role in the film seems little more than an audience surrogate and a mild nuisance to the witches at the dance academy.

The film’s plot is also far more engaging than the original, but often finds itself tripping over its many narrative tendrils. It is clear from early on that there is a power struggle within the coven between Markos ─ again, played by Swinton ─ and Blanc, which is incredibly implicit until much later. The witches’ building influence on Susie is also strangely understated. “Suspiria” relies strongly on visual storytelling to relay its macabre screeds.

The film will certainly prove incredibly divisive. While Guadagnino shows a great deal of restraint throughout ─ relying heavily on the dreamlike cinematography of returning “Call me by Your Name” collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the melancholic score by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke ─ the coven’s carefully crafted guise begins to unravel, and all hell breaks loose. The last 45 minutes or so of the film is decidedly one of the most challenging moments in mainstream cinema in quite some time, rivaled only perhaps by last year’s polarizing “Mother!”.

This last bit of the film is all but guaranteed to turn away probably 75 percent of the audience, but many may admire Guadagnino for committing to such lunacy. A lesser director may have reined in some of the events of the film’s almost comically terrifying third act, but Guadagnino doubles down, committing to a finalet that will likely be remembered for some time to come.

“Suspiria,” like the witches that inhabit it, is enthralling. It dances an incredibly rigid line between psychological and visceral body horror, but somehow manages to meld the two into an abomination that will garner responses from the audience ranging from jubilance to petrification. For those who wanted a heart-wrenching, emotional follow up akin to “Call Me By Your Name,” you will find nothing but trauma here. Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” capitalizes on dread and the supreme melancholy and unrest of post-war Berlin, and while it may be reviled by audiences, it will certainly be remembered as a genre-pushing film if nothing else.

Grade: A-

“Suspiria” will be released in Washington, DC on Friday, November 2

bermer@theeagleonline.com


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