Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria first published by Little White Lies

‘Simulacrum’ is the single word that elderly psychologist Dr Jozef Klemperer (played by one Lutz Ebersdorf, in fact a pseudonym for Tilda Swinton) writes in his case notes as he listens to an unhinged Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) rave in his apartment cum consulting room. In this opening sequence to Luca Gudagnino’s long-gestating remake of the 1977 Suspiria, the very scenario that Patricia is laying out – that the Helena Markos Tanzgruppe of which she has until recently been a member is in fact a coven of witches – makes it clear that we are watching a simulacrum of Dario Argento’s baroque horror classic. Yet no copy can ever be exactly the same as its original, and even if the Helena Markos Tanzgruppe, with its mirrored interior walls, is haunted by the reflective curse of comparisons, it also dances to its own tune.

As Mennonite-raised Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) joins the company and quickly finds her way into the lead part of Volk, the group’s signature piece since it was created by the school’s principal teacher Mme Blanc (Swinton) back in 1948, she is also caught in the middle of a crisis of leadership. For the school’s all-female staff are divided as to whether the ageing, ailing founder Helena Markos (also Swinton) should remain at its head, or whether her protégée Blanc should take over – although the majority remains with Markos. These tensions within reflect those without. For the film is set not in the fairytale Freiburg of Argento’s original, but in a rainy, snowy Berlin in the year of the original’s release – an expressly ‘divided Berlin’ still caught in the guilt and shame of the Second World War, while currently facing an ongoing confrontation between the establishment and, in its last gasp, the Baader-Meinhof Group. 

The school is situated alongside that great symbol of German division, the Berlin Wall, through which Jozef regularly passes to visit the East German dacha where he had once spent happy time with his Jewish wife Anke (Jessica Harper, who played Bannion in the original) before she vanished in 1943. Jozef’s abiding, backward-looking love for Anke is enshrined in the graffito of an initialled heart, itself divided across the corner of the dacha’s outer walls. 

The impulse of just over half the witches to vote conservatively for Markos, or of Jozef to dwell in a romance long-past, mirrors the attachment of so many viewers to Argento’s dazzlingly brilliant 41-year-old film, even as Guadagnino strives, like Susie, to go “off book” and to introduce change while still respecting what has gone before. In the practice sessions for the traditional Volk, a balance between these conflicting forces is openly rehearsed, even as the film subdues the original’s polychromatic colour scheme, mutes its overwhelming score (with Thom Yorke’s quieter melancholic melodies) and stretches out its duration, in an active effort to ring its own changes. Though split down the middle between mimetic tradition and revolutionary variation, nothing about this simulacrum is half-hearted.

Anticipation: Equal enthusiasm and dread

Enjoyment: Old danse macabre, new twist

In Retrospect: A beautiful, resonant feminist fairytale at least half grounded in German post-war realities

© Anton Bitel