In part, that’s because cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom creates such richly textured images from a color palette that’s limited to 50 shades of gray, and because Yorke’s music straddles a note-perfect line between panic and liberation. And in part that’s because of how Guadagnino insists that even the film’s darkest forces are positive things. Without expressing undue sympathy for the RAF, or aligning with the witches as they tear each other apart, “Suspiria” worships the corrective power of culpability and shame. That’s not unexpected from a filmmaker whose work has always been determined to expose the dangers of willful blindness, the festering unsaid, and various other forms of repression. The silences of “A Bigger Splash” build to a fatal calamity, for example, while the bittersweet “Call Me By Your Name” narrowly avoids its own private crisis.
Here, that same focus is conferred upon the downward flow between one generation and the next, as Guadagnino sanctifies each moment of transference the same way that more conventional horror films build entire scenes around jump scares. There’s a sinister magic at work in every one of Madame Blanc’s maternal touches, and in the eerie nightmare logic of the dreams she sends to Susie through inception. The control the teacher wants to exert over her students have a ghoulish quality and an erotic undertow. After being directed by Madame Blanc, the virginal Susie says the experience “felt like it must feel like to fuck.” She loves it, and Johnson’s performance is thrillingly unrepentant from that point forward.
This is a movie that’s awed by female energy and the primordial complexities of motherhood — a movie that recognizes the creational power of a woman’s body, and conflates Madame Blanc’s predatory control over a younger one with a generation’s impulse to own the world they birthed (and not be judged by it). The humiliation suffered by the only two male characters is proof enough that “Suspiria” was written and directed by men who are embarrassed by the dumb simplicity of their own bodies. No wonder Lutz Ebersdorf, the film’s most complex character, is played by a woman in disguise (no matter what Amazon might have you believe).
Ebersdorf’s story runs parallel to the mishegoss over with the Markos girls, only overlapping when the old man tries to get one of Susie’s classmates (Mia Goth) to investigate Patricia’s disappearance for him. For the most part, we watch Ebersdorf shuffle back and forth across the border, muttering to his lost love for reasons that take far too long to become clear. It’s never boring, because watching Tilda Swinton reckon with the Holocaust under a zillion pounds of latex could never be boring; it’s a magnificent feat of stunt casting that allows Guadagnino to reconcile the story’s power with its pain. But the plotting is clumsy, and the character’s full importance dawns on us too late for his role to feel as heartbreaking as it should. Swinton is ingenious, but at least one of her two (or more!) roles is representative of the film’s occasional inability to put its ideas in conversation with its emotions; at some crucial moments, they might as well be divided by the Berlin Wall.
No matter. Guadagnino dredges up the dead with such crazed purpose that his magnum opus is able to dance through its rough spots and make good on its foreboding promise. “Suspiria” is a film of rare and unfettered madness, and it leaves behind a scalding message that’s written in pain and blood: The future will be a nightmare if we can’t take responsibility for the past. Or as Susie asks rhetorically at one point: “Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”
“Suspiria” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Amazon will release it in the United States October 26.