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DANCE DANCE DEVOLUTION

Luca Guadagnino, Suspiria, 2018, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 155 minutes. Center: Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson).

A TRIUMPH of riotous style and a lot of fun, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, released in 1977, plays like a Henry James plot drowning in pools of crimson and gore and glutted with witchy jibber-jabber (aka Latin). In the film—the paragon of the giallo, the genre of visually voluptuous Italian horror movies that peaked in the 1970s—a young American dancer named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at a tanz academy in Freiburg, Germany, and discovers that the school is a front for necromancers conspiring to sacrifice the students to the coven queen. Embracing Suspiria’s loopy story line, J. Hoberman, in a 2009 appreciation of Argento’s film, called it “a movie that makes sense only to the eye.” In contrast, Luca Guadagnino’s remake, the color palette of which resembles the inside of a baby’s diaper, proves unintelligible and vexing at every level. Suspiria 2018 assaults the eye, distresses the ear, and maligns the mind.

Running at a distended 152 minutes, nearly an hour longer than the original, Guadagnino’s version instantly signals the leaden solemnity that will be its doom. An intertitle announces, as if we were at the Bayreuth Festival: “Six acts and an epilogue, set in a divided Berlin.” Guadagnino and the screenwriter David Kajganich have cynically chosen the year that Argento’s film was released—and specifically the German Autumn, those deranging weeks in 1977 when the Red Army Faction mounted a full-on revolution against Deutschland—as the backdrop for Suspiria 2.0. Previously known for the sunny Euro-sybaritism of his movies, like that in last year’s Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino here has repurposed traumas of the twentieth century—invariably, the Holocaust will be evoked—as garlands for a thriller about grueling barre exercises and Black Mass in the basement. “Free Baader!” “Free Meinhof!” goes an offscreen call-and-response in the opening sequence: a game of Marco Polo designed to flatter the dilettantish.

Those rebel yells are heard as Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz)—an escapee from the terpsichorean academy founded by sorceress Helena Markosand maybe an RAF recruit—approaches, in a state of extreme agitation, the office of her wizened psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, alias Tilda Swinton; more on this in a moment). “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” the dancer tells her shrink of her diabolical distaff teachers—in German. It’s the first of many wearying instances when the English that is the film’s lingua franca halts for the dialogue to be gussied up with verbal bursts in Continental tongues.

Dull-witted ostentation—as opposed to the lurid, lysergic embellishments, the retina-tickling blasts of color that give Argento’s film such kicky energy—abounds in Guadagnino’s Suspiria.

Dull-witted ostentation—as opposed to the lurid, lysergic embellishments, the retina-tickling blasts of color that give Argento’s film such kicky energy—abounds in Guadagnino’s Suspiria. Madame Blanc (Swinton, a frequent star in the director’s films), the choreographer at the occult dance company, for example, is a welter of referents: In one scene, wearing a floor-scraping black dress, she is meant to summon Martha Graham; in another, with a cigarette burning between two fingers, Pina Bausch. In yet another, she exhibits the soigné bearing of Lucinda Childs. The American newcomer to the troupe (Dakota Johnson), now known as Susie Bannion (not Suzy), is larded with a backstory, doled out in time-toggling fragments, involving a Mennonite upbringing and a dying ma.

For a project that Guadagnino, who is forty-seven, had been determined for decades to reshape as his own (as a teenager, he would aspirationally write “Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino” in his notebooks), this reimagining rarely includes a set piece in which he rises above epigone. As we watch the limbs of Olga (Elena Fokina), one of Susie’s classmates, being torqued by the invisible hands of she-demons in a danse macabre of flails, grunts, bile, and piss, a better, similar scene in another movie also set in (then extant) West Berlin immediately comes to mind: that of Isabelle Adjani twitching and moaning like an animal in a U-Bahn passageway in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981).

The one element of Suspiria that is wholly Guadagnino’s own is also, unsurprisingly, the movie’s dopiest conceit. Though I knew instantly that the actor playing Dr. Josef Klemperer, a major character, was a latex-distorted Tilda Swinton (whose filmography includes more than one hammy, prosthetically enhanced performance), Guadagnino, his cast, and his crew have insisted otherwise (at least until press time). They claim the doctor is portrayed by one Lutz Ebersdorf—who, per his florid bio in the media kit (Hermann Nitsch is name-checked), is an eighty-year-old Kleinian analyst here making his acting debut. “I believe that people can organize themselves to perpetrate crimes and call it magic,” Dr. Josef K. says at one point. Likewise, people can throw a lot of turgid nonsense into a script and call it a movie.

Suspiria opened in New York and Los Angeles on October 26 and will be released in other cities on November 2.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns