Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich, based on Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s original screenplay
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sylvia Testud
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 10/22/18
Opens: October 26, 2018
While you watch the overlong, drawn-out visuals in this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, you may wonder whether its sinister doings and bizarre rituals are meant to be campy or hope to be taken by the audience as arty horror. As a horror film it bears as much resemblance to cheap pictures highlighting the mad exploits of Freddy Krueger as it does to “Singing in the Rain.” There is little question that much of what passes is eye candy, the violent, modern dances of a Berlin-based company reflecting the more melodramatic incidents outside. This is 1977. The far left, pro- Palestinian Baader-Meinhof Group terrorize the city, warning the authorities that unless all Red Army prisoners are released, each passenger on the hijacked Lufthansa plane will be burned alive. Luca Guadagnino, fresh from his hit movie “Call Me By Your Name” about the romance between a 17-year-old student and an older man, brings the audience back from time to time to what’s going on outside in divided Berlin. However, most of the action takes place within the dance hall used for rehearsals, auditions of new candidates for the modern choreography, and an audience.
With outside terrorism serving the initial plot, a secondary one involves Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, exquisitely disguised by prosthetics as an 80-year-old man). We learn in time, in bits and pieces, that during the bombing of Berlin in 1943 he had the chance to escape with his wife and now feels guilty that his inaction led to her death in a concentration camp. (The remarkable Ms. Swinton will be seen in the role of a dancer, though principally as a director of the group.)
The movie opens on American dancer Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) in full-blown psychotic break, prancing around psychotherapist Dr. Klemperer’s office shouting that she has witnessed a coven of witches at work in the dance academy. While the doctor calmly writes notes about his patient’s “paranoia,” her assertions turn out to be true. The company indeed includes witches in its membership, all the better considering how much more vibrant the members slam, crackle and pop out their interpretive moves. The three witches, who could have come out of a first-act staging of “Macbeth,” are Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum, and Mother Lachryharum.
As principal character, Dakota Johnson takes on the role of Susie Bannion, who left a Mennonite group in Ohio, strangely enough accepted into the company with a full scholarship and lodging despite her lack of training. She impresses the troupe’s director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to such an extent, providing energy to the whole company, that Blanc takes her on as her private mentor, feeding her counsel on how best to use her talent. From what we make out, it’s not how high you jump as much as how you carve out space on the floor, which sounds puzzling enough for a potential movie audience. For her part, Madame Blanc is engaged in a power struggle for the group’s directorship, losing her status by three votes as the members of the troupe cast their vocal ballots as though members of the U.S. Senate. You may wonder whether Susie Bannion will make a pact with the witches rather than becoming one of their victims as the tale grinds on, each segment announced as Act one, Act two, etc.
What can we say about a film that has such striking visuals, augmented by an inventive lighting design and fueled by women whose floor pounding and seizure-like posturings make this a pleasure for the eyes? Alas: coherence is lacking. The narrative is spread out with an epilogue that should have brought the random parts together but wind up merely making a bold statement about Germany’s guilt for the war and the Holocaust. The real stars of the film are the prosthetic designers in the make-up department, particularly in turning Tilda Swinton into an 80-year-old psychotherapist. The only film that year that can begin to compare with their talent is another horror feature, Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” featuring two grotesque-looking yet still human characters serving as a Swedish customs inspector and a traveler for whom she orders a full-body search.
152 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – D
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – C