Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a Giallo classic, famous for its lurid colors and expression of feminine repression and power. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria—less a remake and more a reimagining—is going to be famous for its marathon length and multiple good performances from Tilda Swinton. Wisely, Guadagnino doesn’t try to copy or even live up to Argento’s work, but instead he pivots Suspiria on its axis and makes it about…something. It’s a frustratingly opaque film, less invested in its women than Argento’s version and yet not focused on anything specifically enough by Guadagnino to make as bold a mark as its predecessor. The ending is metal as f-ck, but getting there will test your patience and your bladder as the film clocks in at an indulgent 152 minutes.
The basic frame remains the same: Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, as usual doing great work with Guadagnino) arrives at an elite dance company in Germany only to find something wicked this way comes. Another dancer has vanished mysteriously, and the women who run the company are more than they seem. The action moves to Berlin, though, and is set in 1977—the year of the original film—and there Guadagnino wedges in a whole other movie that really has nothing to do with Susie and the dance company. Oh, he makes a tenuous connection, as psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) is treating Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), the hysterical, paranoid and politically active dancer who goes missing. But Klemperer’s story is superfluous to Susie’s, or Susie is superfluous to Klemperer’s. The two never really match up and the split focus doesn’t help either protagonist or the run time.
There is a lot to admire about Suspiria, as Guadagnino stuffs it with visions and violently evocative—or sometimes just plain violent—dance sequences. And his use of the color red, though much toned down from Argento’s vision, is interesting. For most of the film the only real color comes from Susie’s Titian red hair. Titian red is such an interesting color, which Titian wielded as a duality, bestowing it on the Madonna and Venus alike, and using it to unite the sacred and the profane. That duality is present in Suspiria, and it plays directly into the symbolism of women’s hair as a signifier of femininity and also power.
But there is also a lot to irritate in Suspiria, starting with the overstuffed double narrative. With his attention divided by an almost totally unrelated story (that seems to exist only to contextualize Berlin in 1977 as a political moment), Guadagnino does less well by his female characters than he should. Everyone outside of Susie and Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) are cardboard cutouts, which in turn makes a couple graphic sequences of suffering come off as exploitative. And even Susie and Blanc have their cartoonish moments. If it weren’t for Johnson and Swinton being as capable as they are, Suspiria might be unwatchable.
There will certainly be fans of Guadagnino’s Suspiria. It has enough intention and quirks to prompt discussion, but its run time and self-serious pretention are equally likely to turn people off. The wild ending makes up for a lot, but it’s weird enough that, again, some people just won’t like it. (It’s also not as hard a turn from “esoteric artsy film about, maybe, nothing” to “holy f-ck welcome to metal town” as Mandy.) It won’t be as divisive as mother! simply because Suspiria isn’t trying to piss you off, but it will definitely split audiences in a similar way. It’s not Guadagnino’s best movie, but it’s not a bad movie, either. It might even be good, if you squint hard enough.