Jackie Richardson ’21 | Assistant Art Editor
“Suspiria” is bad. “Suspiria” is a mess. “Suspiria” is a movie set in 1977 Berlin that’s about both a psychotherapist mourning his wife and about an American Mennonite girl who gets admitted into a prestigious dance academy that turns out to run by a coven of witches. “Suspiria” tries to do many things and does none of them well. But this and its other technical problems are the least of its flaws. In fact its greatest flaw — no, its greatest sin — lies in what it tries to seem like it’s saying and what it instead is actually saying.
But first, a summary. “Suspiria” starts — and it only gets worse from here — with Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a student at the Markos Dance Academy, stumbling to the door of her psychotherapist, Klemperer (Tilda Swinton; Klemperer is an old man, but more on this later). Flitting around his office, Hingle rambles about the academy: how the women there have taken her hair, how they will “serve her c*** on a platter” and so on. Klemperer notes, in crisp handwriting, that she is becoming increasingly delusional. Just as quickly as she comes, she leaves his office, and the movie’s focus turns to Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), the American Mennonite girl who, despite her lack of formal training, gets admitted into the Markos Dance Academy after her audition. From here the movie alternates between Bannion’s plotline — in which she excels at the academy as other dancers fall prey to the academy’s matrons’ witchcraft — and Klemperer’s — in which he searches for Hingle after she goes missing and mourns his wife Anke, who is presumably dead after fleeing Nazis many years before.
“Suspiria” fails as a piece of art — as something arranged to produce some message or meaning — but before this, it fails as a movie and as a form of entertainment. Chunks of film devoted to flashing through images of worms, bodies and blood quickly become tedious and bloat the movie’s 152 minutes, making the movie feel too long. Accentuating the latter is director Luca Guadagnino’s decision to divide the movie into six asymmetric acts and an epilogue. Every time a new act announced itself on screen, it was as though Guadagnino was both teasing the sweet relief of an exit and end (“This is the sixth act, it has to end after this”) and sadistically yanking it away (“No, there is an epilogue, of course there is”). Dakota Johnson — known mainly for giving a bland character her best effort in “Fifty Shades of Grey” — felt miscast in this role, and she failed to convincingly play the more sinister aspects of her character, which flattened the movie’s climax. The movie taking place in 1970’s Germany feels motivated not by a genuine interest in this time and place, but by a cynical desire simply to take place in a historically important time.
But there are good aspects of this movie — fresh s*** does shine. Tilda Swinton immerses herself in three roles: Madame Blanc, one of the academy’s matrons; Helena Markos, the witch controlling the academy; and Josef Klemperer, with the use of incredibly realistic makeup and prosthetics. The choreography is riveting — it does exactly what it means to do, which is to show how dance, with its animal grace, can cast a spell and set other bodies to its beat. And perhaps with a few slight adjustments, this movie’s flaws and merits would add up to a piece of work that is simply okay. At first, it even looks like it might fit in with a lot of contemporary feminist media. There are witches, and much of the movie takes place within the matriarchy of the dance academy.
But whether Guadagnino intends to or not, he uses these feminist motifs to espouse antiquated and sexist ideas about women. He links the lack of men and heterosexual sex at the academy with the women’s use of witchcraft and what makes them dangerous. After watching Bannion dance and unknowingly perform witchcraft with the aid of the academy’s matrons, Madame Blanc asks her how it felt. Bannion says that it felt like how she imagined having sex would feel like. To this, Blanc asks contemptuously, “With a man?” Guadagnino even seems to suggest that the terrorism of the time is caused by this matriarchy: the academy’s sins seem to represent a primordial rot that continues to infect the modern world.
Moreover, with the contrast that naturally arises between Klemperer’s and Bannion’s plotlines, Guadagnino affirms the false link between masculinity and order and femininity and chaos. Klemperer — a psychotherapist who is loyal to his presumably dead wife and searches for his missing patient — represents a kind of comfortable, conventional order, while the women of the academy — who seem to arbitrarily harm men and each other — embody chaos. All this is to say that this movie, which looks like it celebrates the power of women’s sexuality, actually validates fears about what happens when women are alone together, away from men. Guadagnino asserts that this is bad for men, sure, but it’s even worse for women, who mutilate and kill each other when left to their own devices. But a more honest artist, a more honest director and a man more honest with himself would know that there’s nothing better for a woman than to be with other women. He would know that a woman’s destruction and death doesn’t start with other women. He would know that, more often, their company relieves her of a living death.