Sunday, 18 November 2018
2018 Italy/USA Directed by Luca Guadagnino
UK cinema release print.
Well this is a worryingly problematic film which I’d be tempted to sum up in just a line or two but, since some of it seems to be fairly well made, I’ll give the project its due. Fair warning though... I’ve not seen any other films by this director so I can’t comment on how his particular sensibilities find any commonality with any of his other projects.
Let’s get all the preliminary nonsense out of the way first by clearly stating that there’s no reason and, really no way, that you should... or could... attempt a remake of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria (which I reviewed here). The original/real Suspiria is a unique film and is also unshakeably bound by the artistic sensibilities of its director. I would no more think of remaking this classic than I would any other classic of cinema such as Citizen Kane, Star Wars or Taxi Driver (and you can bet at least two of those are coming in the next 10-30 years). It’s almost impossible to subvert Suspiria to a modern sensibility with another creative team behind the film and... in some ways it’s a relief to find that this is, in fact, not what Luca Guadagnino has done here with his new, ‘updated’ version.
In fact, the approach to this version seems almost childlike in that he’s almost gone in exactly the opposite direction from all the things that made the original so unique in order to not be compared to it. If that was the case, "well done" because it’s certainly true that this could never be compared to the original. It’s just too different. The original had two things which are common to the majority (not all) of Dario Argento’s work... bad acting and a not so great story. It also had absolutely stunning mise en scene, shot in bright, primary colours via a technicolour printer and an absolutely awesome score by Goblin. It is incomparable to most any other film (even to Argento’s equally superb sequel Inferno) and stands alone as the piece of art it is.
In this new version, it’s hard to find much of any common ground. You have the basics of Daria Nicolodi and Dario Argento’s story of a dance academy housing a coven of witches, also remotely inspired by a certain couple of essay pages written by Thomas De Quincey about the three mothers, often published in compendiums of his writing bundled with Confessions Of An English Opium Eater. And... that’s about it as far as connections go. You have characters who aren’t necessarily fulfilling the same kind of story roles as they did in the original. Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion is a completely different kind of protagonist and she has a much different arc here... as does, surprisingly, the character of Helena Marcos (played as one of three roles by Tilda Swinton)... who has a kind of demotion from her status in the previous version (I won’t go into spoiler territory here though).
You also have a great cast... with Johnson and Swinton having to hold their own among equally gifted actors such as Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz and Angela Winkler. One thing this film is big on is acting talent. There’s even a cameo from Jessica Harper in this but the character she’s playing (again without giving too much away as to the true nature of her role), is connected to an element of the film which is in no way present in the original story. Indeed, Swinton’s turn as the male Dr. Josef Klemperer is one of many different avenues the film goes down into a story, set the same year as the original release of 1977, which seems to be more about fallout from World War Two and, also, the whole Bader-Meinhof thing than it does to the witchy goings on in a dance school.
Furthermore, the famous primary colours have been dropped in favour of an almost exclusively washed out colour palette and, although there are a few sequences with smooth, longish camera movements there is also, it seemed to me, an abundance of short, static shots in an edit which is something which pretty much removes this film’s right to be compared to Argento’s opus even more. So you really have to look at this movie on its own terms as, frankly, anything you could use to compare it to the former is taken away from you.
As a film in it’s own right then... well, it starts off really strong and builds up a nicely unsettling and powerful atmosphere which it manages to sustain for the first two thirds of the movie... which it then somehow manages to waste completely by getting truly dull and uninspiring by the time it reaches the last third. This last third includes scenes of orgiastic goriness which, frankly, should have left me shocked and gasping but which... and maybe it’s just the way it was cut and paced... distanced and comforted me in a kind of dull, passive way almost, rather than confront me with the visceral jolt of horror I was expecting. I mean, people having their entrails pulled out, limbs twisted and heads half severed to spray fountains of arterial blood over the rest of the cast sounds like a great and visually ostentatious, fun time should be had by all but, the way it was shot and presented here it just felt a little too much like David Cronenberg-lite, to be honest.
The most interesting things about the film were the bits where it built up the political and redemption sub plots but, honestly, they seem to amount to nothing by the end of the movie and when it comes to Tilda Swinton, one of the great actresses of our time, playing Dr. Klemperer in this one... a character who isn’t even in the original... one has to ask the obvious question here. Why? She does it well but... could they not afford another male actor?
And then there’s Thom Yorke’s celebrated score. It’s just fine. It’s mostly appropriate... although I could do without the songs... but the film is really not as special or as visually striking as the 1977 movie so it doesn’t have to serve the same function as Goblin’s absolute masterpiece of the original. It must be a hard thing to score, knowing you’re going to be compared to Goblin in this way but, there you have it. It’s not nearly as strong but it doesn’t have to be and so, being appropriate and probably a nice enough listen away from the images is absolutely fine. It’s pleasant rather than essential but, frankly, that’s no mean feat anyway so I’m not complaining. I’ll be picking up the CD of this one soonest, I suspect.
And that’s all I’ve got for you as a first impression. This is really not a remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Instead, it’s a nice but somehow muddied (plot wise) horror film which starts off phenomenally well but which then gets burdened with an overlong and excessively dull final third which kind of felt like it wasn’t living up to the strength of its set up. Still, it’s an interesting curio but... why call it Suspiria? I’d hate for youngsters today to think this is in anyway a substitute for the real thing. A nice enough attempt to do something interesting but a failed one (not necessarily a bad thing... spectacular failures can be as interesting as successes) and something which seems unnecessary to be birthed in, quite, this ‘named branded’ manner. I couldn’t watch it over and over again like the original but, then again, I really wasn’t expecting that to be the case anyway.