Dance en abyme: Suspiria (2018) and reflections on rebirth
Remakes always come with an in-built tension. Cleave too close to the original, and your film seems pointless. Cleave too far from it, and the film barely seems a remake. The ideal is to find a balance, somewhere between these two poles: a film that still bears the skeleton of the original, but resurrects it with new flesh. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria certainly dances along this fine line. The title, the names of many (though not all) of the characters, the setting in a German dance school run by a coven of witches, the confronting of this evil by an American newcomer, and oneiric scenes involving the grotesque and the surreal, are all familiar parts of Dario Argento’s original. Even the period in which the remake’s events take place, 1977, is the same as the year of the original‘s release.
Yet there are marked differences too. Here, apart from a few dream sequences and the climax, the kaleidoscope of brilliant colours that marked Argento’s film have been replaced by a far more subdued palette. The location has shifted from picturesque Freiburg to a rainy, snowy, graffiti-tainted Berlin – a city marked by political codes and divisions – with Helena Markos’ dance school situated right alongside the Wall that splits East from West, with violent demonstrations and rioting in the streets, and with the terror campaigns of the Baader Meinhof Group filling the airwaves. The film’s length has been expanded to a whopping two and a half hours – in fact one of the remake’s shortcomings (if that’s the word), as it strains to breaking point what is acceptable for a genre film – but the point is, this too makes it feel very different from Argento’s. Gone are prog rocker Goblin’s deafening infernal incantations, replaced by Thom Yorke’s quieter, more melancholic score. If the 1977 film features next to no actual dancing, Guadagigno’s is full of rehearsals and performances – the ritualised entry point of these young women into a possessed state of ecstasy, and a mise en abyme of the film itself as it comes into its own shape.
Another obvious formal difference: unlike the original, Suspiria (2018) is divided up into “six acts and an epilogue”. The two middle acts are respectively titled ‘Borrowing’ and ‘Taking’, words which encode the film’s acquisitive, even larcenous relationship to Suspiria (1977) – as well as to other Berlin-set artful genre films like Andrej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Guadagnino borrows from the best, taking what he can get, and rearranging it into his own routine. This tension between the traditional and the innovative is woven into the fabric of the remake. For much as the Markos Dance Academy is a hall of mirrors, its walls covered in reflective surfaces, the film itself constantly reflects upon its own form and its very status as a remake.
Freshly arrived from rural Ohio and still haunted by the death gasps of her (now deceased) Mennonite mother, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) comes to the school at just the right moment: as another student, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), goes missing, leaving a room vacant. Susie is welcomed into the all-female ‘family’, not least because of her incredible talent at everything to do with dance – everything, that is, except leaping. The head teacher, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), wants Susie to fly, whereas Susie prefers things more grounded, in what is a metaphor both for Susie’s resistance to witchery, and for the film’s resistance to Argento’s more baroque flights of fancy. Despite the odd irrational flourish, Guadagnino’s film is mostly rooted in the realities of postwar Germany.
In fact, Susie embodies both resistance and surrender – and her attitude to the dance piece Volk mirrors the remake’s relationship to the original. Volk is itself a remake – a piece devised in 1948, as Germany was being reborn from the ashes of the Reich, by the school’s founder Helena Markos. It has been a part of the academy’s tradition ever since. Susie has seen Blanc dance the piece’s lead rôle three times in New York, and has closely studied video footage of it – much as Argento fans have watched and rewatched Suspiria. So, even though she is an outsider and a novice, Susie volunteers to take the protagonist’s part in the school’s latest production of Volk just one day after she has arrived at the school. It is a difficult, potentially dangerous part, as any deviation from the piece’s carefully choreographed movements risks causing injury to Susie or her fellow dancers. “When you dance the dance of another,” Blanc tells Susie, “you make yourself in the image of its creator. You empty yourself.” Yet Susie keeps changing the dance’s steps, and imposing herself on the received material. This energising spirit of conflict between acquiescent fidelity and appropriative improvisation is what ultimately makes Volk very much Susie’s own – and also the new Suspiria very much Guadagnino’s own.
The political divisions unfolding outside the school’s front doors are also reflected within, as a struggle of succession between the old, hidden Markos (also Swinton) and the middle-aged Blanc is underway, with the various female staff having to choose sides, and young Susie being groomed as a maybe-willing vessel in the occult proceedings. This intergenerational tussle for the status of ‘Mother Suspiriorum’ also figures the bloody contest between old film and new for the title of Suspiria. These parallel struggles are marked by the reiterations, reconstitutions and rebirths that are also the theme of Volk – a dance that forms a mystic part of the school’s rituals of absorption, transformation and (r)evolution, on a borderline between history’s linearity and a timeless conjuring circle.
Meanwhile a new character, the elderly psychoanalyst Dr Jozef Klemperer (a rôle attributed to one Lutz Ebersdorf, but in fact also Swinton) conducts two investigations. The first is into the school and his missing patient Patricia’s claims that it is run by witches – a notion which Jozef initially dismisses as delusion or perhaps metaphor. The second is a decades-long, slow-burning search for his beloved Anke (a search also for the film’s own lost past, given that Anke is played by Jessica Harper, the original Suspiria‘s Suzy Bannion) who disappeared while fleeing Nazi Germany in the War. If passing the threshold of the school is like entering another, nether world, every day Josef also crosses the more literal, well-guarded border between West and East, to visit the cottage where he and Anke once shared their trysts.
Jozef wishfully, wistfully entertains the fantasy that Anke might, even after so many years have passed, return and rekindle the old magic with him. Jozef is a figure for a would-be remaker, constantly looking back to the past in the hope, impossibly, of recovering it, but needing ultimately to be purged of that memory, with all its associated shame and guilt. Similarly it is obvious that Guadagnino has revisited the beloved original of Argento time and time again, before ultimately abandoning its fixed steps and hoofing to his own beat. This is not Suspiria remade so much as Suspiria reborn, gestating ever so slowly towards its climactic, convulsive scene of messy parturition – and the film that comes out at the end is not quite the same as the film that went in at the start. Still, there remains a trace, like an erotic graffito etched into a wall, of the love that originally set things in motion – even as the dance goes on.
© Anton Bitel