Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino cites categorization as one of his enemies, and the sudden fierceness in his eyes shows he’s not kidding.
“I feel uncomfortable putting ideas and thoughts into boxes,” Guadagnino, 47, tells The Japan Times. “As soon as you categorize something, it starts to feel lifeless.”
Guadagnino was in Tokyo to promote his latest film “Suspiria” and he was a tad bothered by how the Western press had been describing the film as a “remake.” For Guadagnino, “Suspiria” is not a remake or a re-enactment of the original Dario Argento vehicle released in 1977 — though he admits there are certain factors of both at work in his own film. He attested to a decades-long passion for the film, and also for Argento, whose movie posters adorned the walls of Guadagnino’s bedroom as a child.
“I first saw the original ‘Suspiria’ when I was 13 years old,” says Guadagnino. “Since then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s such a perfect fairytale.”
Guadagnino’s obsession with Argento’s film continued well into adulthood and he purchased the rights for a remake (for lack of a better word) in 2007. Of Argento, Guadagnino says, “He gave me boldness, he gave me freedom. His ‘Suspiria’ seemed to me breathtakingly new — it ushered me into a world dominated by women, the sheer scale of their emotions, manipulations and love. It was a world that overwhelmed me, but one that I needed to create and become part of.”
As a boy, Guadagnino drew his own posters of “Suspiria,” with his name as the director. And now the dream has become a reality, and the particular shade of red used in the posters is one that Guadagnino took pains to get right. It’s not really the shade of blood, but is evocative of a murder scene glimpsed in a nightmare.
“For me, movies are about emotions, dreams, memories,” he says. “This is why I love the horror genre — it evokes so much emotion.”
The original “Suspiria” caused a huge stir when it opened in Japan and came with a warning: By no means watch this film alone. Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” comes off as a feverish dream monster feeding off its obsession with the original and it is definitely not for solo-viewing either (on the other hand, this will never work as a date movie). Argento’s baroque violence and crimson-drenched color scheme are re-created here, but Guadagnino submerges his reds in gray tones and enshrouds the violence with mysterious elusiveness.
Plenty of respect is shown to Argento’s “Suspiria,” like a cameo appearance by Jessica Harper, who starred in the original vehicle. In it, Harper played Susie Bannion, an American dancer who flies to Germany to enroll at Tanz — the most prestigious ballet school in Europe. There, she encounters a series of grisly incidents engineered by the ballet instructors, as the school reveals itself to be something sinister. In Guadagnino’s 2018 film, Susie is portrayed by Dakota Johnson, who arrives at the school in 1977, the year Argento’s “Suspiria” came out. Johnson’s Susie is more in control, both of her feelings and the terrifying events she witnesses at Tanz, renamed here as the Helena Markos Dance Academy. Susie’s incredibly choreographed (by Olivia Ancona) dance moves get more screen time too, as does her potentially amorous relationship with the school’s charismatic choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton).
Swinton, who has appeared in three of Guadagnino’s films, is often sited as his “muse,” a term the filmmaker dislikes as much as “remake.”
“We share a common vision and we love working together, that is all,” he says. “She is an extraordinary presence, in real life and on the screen.” Evidently so — in “Suspiria,” Guadagnino deploys Swinton in three different roles, including a grossly disfigured witch.
Another difference between the two films is the setting. “Dario set the school in Freiburg but I wanted the stage to be Berlin,” Guadagnino says. “The explosive political elements of Berlin in 1977 needed to be part of the backdrop.”
Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” unfolds against the backdrop of the “German Autumn,” when protestors flooded the streets and news alerts of the infamous Lufthansa hijacking blared over the radio. It was a chaotic and hurtful time in divided Berlin, and in the film the streets seem to ache with pain. Guadagnino also weaves in allusions to the Holocaust and the haunting refrain of guilt and regret that assails Dr. Josef Klemperer, a psychiatrist in his 80s whose wife died in a concentration camp while he himself managed to survive and continue his practice.
Klemperer is original to Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” and practically the sole male in the film. His main function, however, seems to be to impress upon Susie and the other women that he (and by implication other men) is completely ineffectual. The surprise (or conceit, depending on your point of view) is that Klemperer is also played by Swinton (with a different credit), under a shock of white hair and layers of makeup. Is this a statement about female empowerment? “Not really,” says Guadagnino. “I don’t need to state how powerful women are, especially in this film. Tilda Swinton got inside the mind of this weak and tortured man and she gave a masterful performance.”
Guadagnino adds that he has always been fascinated with women, and “being gay liberates me from sexually objectifying them. I identify with women a little, while at the same time I am hyper aware of their power, mystery and sexuality.”
In the end “Suspiria” isn’t about women per se but a majestically orchestrated, blood-infused fable. It proffers an other-worldly experience enhanced by the chilling soundtrack composed by Thom Yorke — the first such project by the Radiohead frontman — and the production design supervised by Guadagnino.
“I studied architectural design and so I am very influenced by space,” he says. “To me space is just as much a character in a movie as the rest of the cast.” Indeed, the viewer will likely be haunted by visions of the school building and the dance studio where everything — especially the huge mirrors, seem ominous and menacing.
“I prefer things to be opaque rather than translucent,” Guadagnino adds. “Translucence implies something plasticky, and easily understandable. But with ‘Suspiria,’ understanding it is not a priority. I wanted to get magic, evil and art under one roof, and have it all swirling like a beautiful storm. I hope audiences will feel that too.”
“Suspiria” comes out in Toho Cinemas Hibiya and cinemas nationwide on Jan. 25. For more information, visit https://gaga.ne.jp/suspiria.