In searching for where to begin this review, I can think of no better way than to say that I fucked up. A friend asked me to go see Suspiria at the NuArt Theater in West Hollywood last night, but since that was a midnight show, I suggested the Arclight instead for a more reasonable showtime. My fuck up was not realizing that the former was for the original 1977 film, whereas the Arclight was showing the remake starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson showing that she has some serious chops beyond every punchline about her in the Fifty Shades series. Second fuck up: I’m eating crow for thinking the actress couldn’t hold her own in a film like this (far less opposite Tilda Swinton, *swoon*), and I’m proven thoroughly wrong.
It’s impossible to ignore the modern Hollywood ecosystem of #MeToo in viewing this film. It’s a story about women making art to achieve something truly transcendent, all the sacrifice, and pain that goes into that. That sounds sweeping and romantic for now, but from here on out: spoiler warning.
There are only three male roles of note in the film, and one of them is played by Tilda Swinton in debatably convincing makeup as an octogenarian German psychologist. Of the three male roles, all of them are abjectified in some form by the women of the dance company in pursuit of their dark ritual.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and if it seems to easy to say this is fodder for MRA anti-feminist arguments that’s because it is too easy, it’s laying a trap. The women aren’t trying to debase men, they’re trying to transcend toward something they perceive as divine through their art, and men are in the way. In getting past those men, laying bare their sins is just the cost of doing business.
It’s why in the final ritual, Swinton’s naked Dr. Hofer is present, but far from a focal point of the scene. The camera only shifts to his despairing grimace to remind us that he’s still there “bearing witness.” That he’s allowed to return home, safely, after the ritual in a stupor is the most telling argument for this film’s feminism not being anti-male despite its grotesqueries. Far more violence is visited on women by women throughout the film.
No, what matters isn’t the women versus the men/society- it’s the women in pursuit of their goal. They’re trying, through art and the animalistic aspect of dance to summon something older than time itself. Summoning this thing requires devotion, it requires pain, it requires cold calculation and inhumanity, and it requires the sacrifice of several so that one- only one may ascend. When she does ascend, the one who loves her most and trained her for it is dubious of the payoff and act both. When she ascends, her ascension and its divinity/purity is also very dubious.
What the coven summons is a beast of absolution. The film plays with Lovecraftian concepts: what we might perceive as a god is truly a nightmare we cannot comprehend. It raises questions about artistry and the sacrifices we put ourselves and accomplices through in pursuit of a vision- the obstacles faced by society in bringing something transcendent into being. Are the obstacles not justified if that terror is the result? Is the result worth it? Or are we all powerless and impure in some way or degree to judge it at all?
I’m still processing this movie. I don’t have a lot of conclusions about it and I truly think that’s the point. It’s beautifully shot, incredibly calculated in its framing of its characters, tone, and presentation. It feels a bit long but I can’t think of where the fat is. In the end it scared me in all the ways it clearly meant to, and I think it left me asking the questions it wanted to leave me asking. If you’re in the mood for some belated Halloween spooks, go see this one. In the meantime, I’m trying to remediate my fuck up and take in the 1977 original.