Horror is not something that is generally looked up to in modern cinema. It’s definitely more of a guilty pleasure or treasure for connoisseurs of trash or cult classic films (which I do consider myself to be a part of, for clarification). So when I felt mesmerized by the astounding skill with which director Luca Guardagnino employs still shots, blocking, and imagery, I knew I was watching something other than a conventional film.
Starring Dakota Johnson as Susie, the film follows her journey through an elite dance school in Berlin during the 1970s. Numerous events of historical context play out in parallel to her plot, echoing the themes of the central narrative but only playing a minor role in its importance. Susie comes to Berlin from Ohio, where she lived an oppressive life in a religious school. She goes to Berlin, in part, to be free, but during her time there, she discovers that what she wants may not turn out to be so fantastic and enlightened.
Surrounding Johnson’s Susie include Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc, Chloe Grace-Moretz as the elusive and perhaps delusional Patricia, Mia Goth as Sara, and also Tilda Swinton as some other characters which I’d prefer not to spoil. There are many more characters that add to this group I’ve already listed, but they serve a purpose more akin to set dressing that say things and have mischievous looks about them, rather than three-dimensional people.
Of course, for those who have seen the original film, something mysterious is happening behind the doors of the dance academy that Susie attends. Others have their suspicions, but the teachers at the academy have their ways of concealing what happens behind closed doors. It is this air of mystery that Guardagnino lights and directs the film. Faces and bodies cast in shadow while rooms are clearly lit with a stylized flair. The dormitories of both student and staff characters, corridors leading to the dance studio, and even the lobby of the dance academy are lit like a temple, with barely any noticeable light except what is needed to properly illuminate characters in a dark, mysterious fashion. Take, for instance, a scene early on in the film, where Susie goes in for the initial audition to the prestigious dance academy. Susie stands in a dark hallway, and then a door opens. A teacher stands there, backlit with bright dance studio lights. Susie’s face is illuminated, while the teacher’s face is in silhouette.
In hindsight, I personally view this as Guardagnino’s thesis for the lighting in this film. The dance studio serves as a place of ceremony for both the students and teachers of this dance academy, while all other parts are simply dark and gray. That is quite literally true, as all scenes that take place outside the film look like they take place in realistically colored settings on an otherwise quite dreary day. I understand that this is a sort of antithesis to the lighting of the original film, and I judge it not on that basis, but rather its own originality. I was going to label the way Guardagnino lights outdoor settings something cliché like desaturated or overcast, but really, it’s more like everything outside the dance studio is lit this way because the elements are without life, not to say that the dance academy is a joyous experience for all its students.
It’s nice then, that this film gives the audience people to root for in their respective arcs. Sara, played by Mia Goth, and a Dr. Josef Klemperer become the audience surrogates, characters who have motivations to find out what’s going on behind the scenes. Compared to Susie’s journey, which is almost oppressively static until the end of the film, theirs are paths of change. The scenes that involve them investigating the mystery behind the academy are quite intense, and had me gasping about what was going to happen, likely to the annoyance of the audience members in front of me. Although Sara’s character is less complex than Klemperer’s, with the latter having a fairly obscure past that is dug up as the film goes on, she slowly became my favorite character in the whole movie.
Characters, rather than plot and genre, are the driving force behind the film. I wouldn’t find the darker elements so interesting if I hadn’t taken note of the people onscreen. I don’t want to spend too much time on the darker elements of the movie, besides to say that they are good, if slightly overindulgent at times. One scene near the beginning of the film, for instance, starts out intense, but as it goes on, becomes a slog to watch, as if the director is saying: “look how terrible I can make you feel” rather than just scaring us with the thought of what could be happening onscreen. Otherwise, they’re good, except for a few glaring times that the direction changes the way viewers see what plays out onscreen.
Up to now, I’ve had nothing but praise for the direction of the movie. More than anything, it made me care about the characters’ lives, and even better, it looked darn good. I barely mentioned the way Guardagnino deftly uses slow and still shots, which evoke a belying calm to the proceedings. It’s unfortunate then, that the director has a tendency to break his own rules.
Character motivations, lighting, and filming techniques are all things that the film does well, and yet there are occasions where it trips on its own face trying to be different about its own approach that it’s heretofore built up so well.
Flashbacks to Susie’s life in America, Madame Blanc’s decisions that have her siding with students sometimes, the academy and instructors at others, and Dr. Josef Klemperer’s life history playing into his character come as interruptions to the narrative, causing me to question both the importance and decisions of placement in the writing. They don’t override how the good the film is, but they are serious road bumps in that they are not very clear to understand.
Other mistakes that Guardagnino makes is messing with his own formula, and also taking it too far. As I said, his best shots are slow and still. Although they make up most of visual arrangement of the film, they are interrupted at times by really quick, really sloppy zooms. Unless he’s trying to replicate purposefully terrible B-movie zooms or somehow attempting to echo shot composition of the original film (which I would not know since I have not seen it yet), then it makes no sense why they are included. In addition, there are times, especially toward the ending, where the film’s already eccentric lighting is taken to an extreme, and although I am certainly not complaining about what I saw onscreen, I do take issue with how it is executed. Deliberately slowing down or speeding up the way people move onscreen works if it is a leitmotif, but not in singular instances, as is the case here. Of that, I will say no more.
This is the best horror film I’ve seen in quite a while, and one of the few that I personally take seriously as real contenders for excellent writing and direction. But it is overly self-indulgent in the way it approaches its own techniques in lighting and editing, which although seems fine at first, just causes me to question why it’s come out this way in the first place, throwing me out of a film that is otherwise quite engaging. But Suspiria is a lot more than what it looks like, and for that I am thankful.