Ambitious. How else to describe a film that analogizes dancing to spell-casting and a coven of witches to the Red Army Faction. I appreciate that ambition, and the influences director Luca Guadagnino brings to bear. But the result didn’t thrill me.
This isn’t a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 film. It takes the premise—witches running a Berlin dance academy—and charts its own path. Where Argento’s played like a horrific fairy tale, Guadagnino’s plays like a paranoid thriller interspersed with dance numbers. Where Argento’s careened from one nightmare set-piece to the next, Guadagnino proffers multiple plot threads.
The central story follows Dakota Johnson as a promising new dancer. Tilda Swinton plays the academy head who’s struggling with her coven’s internal politics. Swinton also plays a therapist struggling to uncover the academy’s secrets. The female-lead cast hints at a message of female empowerment, but the incessant Red Army Faction references and suspect mythology dilute the message.
At its best, the film reminds me of its influences: the original Suspiria, and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. Both captured Cold War Berlin’s inherit tension, but they were contemporary settings. Guadagnino’s staging feels retro, heightened, and often artificial.
I could forgive these shortcomings. I love Argento’s original despite its problems. But this entry kept me at arm’s length. Shifting between the various plot threads prevents the film from picking up a head of steam, and the disappointing epilogue robs the narrative of its edge. Kinder, gentler witches don’t resonate. Worst of all, the added plotting and world-building bloat the running time. Guadagnino’s version clocks in almost an hour longer than Argento’s. Not to say Argento’s was perfect, but given the choice between two flawed films, I’ll take the shorter one.