“It’s all a mess—the one in here. The one out there. The one that’s coming.” This ominous knowing, “voiced” telepathically by dancer Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson) toward the end of “Suspiria,” a gonzo, bravura film that couldn’t be further from business as usual.
So far, director Luca Guadagnino has filmed florid melodramas (“A Bigger Splash,” “I Am Love”) and raw coming-of-age dramas (“Call Me By Your Name”), none of which could predict his latest turn remaking a classic Italian giallo. “Suspiria,” the 1977 touchstone from cult filmmaker Dario Argento, is a frenzied masterwork of supernatural horror and garish bloodletting. It’s the sort of film whose average Hollywood remake, in the age of torture porn and jaded postmodernism, would be transmogrified into a tired parade of tacky jump scares and gore for gore’s sake.
Take comfort in the fact that Guadagnino’s faithful but expansive take—it’s two and a half hours to Argento’s 98 minutes—is anything but a pandering Hollywood bowdlerization. It’s the most effed-up movie to open in theaters since last year’s “Mother,” but that bit of Aronofsky anarchy was more approachable, more ferociously direct. “Suspiria” teems with mystery, with a tone that’s addictively alien even for devotees of the original film.
The movie’s title card informs us that it is a story told “in six acts and an epilogue, set in a divided Berlin.” Playing out amid the tumultuous German Autumn that included the hijacking of the Lufthansa Landshut by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, “Suspiria” focuses primarily on more implacable horrors. It’s set in a modern dance academy in Berlin, where Susie, a naïve farm girl from Ohio, has just earned a coveted spot, acquired through some controversy: She’s replacing Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a former student whom we have just seen, in the film’s prologue, storming into a psychologist’s office in a state of manic delirium, speaking of witches, mind control, telepathy, and theft of urine and “eyes.”
The film’s tension lies in squaring that information with Susie’s experiences at the respected dance company, led by an exacting genius named Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton at her spectral best) and her peculiar management team. What ensues is a campaign of psychic terror that makes the psychosexual cruelties of “Black Swan” seem like so much child’s play. Susie soon finds herself the target of an underground coven, whose insidious attacks span from the dance floor to her dreams.
Odd as it sounds, “Suspiria” is a women’s picture open to feminist interpretations. The world of the dance studio, and its underground parallel, are as excluding of males as the Amazon of “Wonder Woman.” The only male character with a significant speaking role is played by a woman (the indefatigable and chameleonic Swinton, in one of her three parts).
But the movie is as deeply unpleasant as it is intellectually stimulating; its audience is strictly for horror aficionados and cinephiles, and it will appeal to members of both cohorts in equal measure. Guadagnino’s style is as eclectic as ever, adapting to each scene’s textures, from rapid, knife’s-edge montages to long, slow tracks and zooms. Like Argento, he values camera movement for all its heightened grandiosity. But he’s arguably a more exacting formalist than the original “Suspiria” creator: As with Kubrick and Hitchcock, his frames are deliberately composed, with every object, every signpost, every minute detail serving as a potential clue. It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears (Thom Yorke composed the alternately unnerving and beautiful score), the unsettled gut.
Central to Guadagnino’s dark thesis, I believe, is the discomforting idea that great art often comes at the expense of great suffering, and that said art, when placed into the wrong hands, can be weaponized for evil. This is where the film’s particular setting comes in. It’s no accident it’s staged in ‘70s Berlin, where the wounds of the Holocaust have far from healed; in a key subplot, the psychologist, Dr. Kemperer (Swinton), continues to hold out hope for his wife, from whom he was separated during Nazi Germany. This is the period that gave us Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” the ultimate example of art co-opted by nefarious ends.
I’m free-associating perhaps, but I think Guadagnino would support such thematic wanderings; certainly his film doesn’t spell anything out. That’s one of its assets. I’d like to see it again, if I could stomach it.
“Suspiria” opens today at Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton and Regal Royal Palm Beach Stadium 18.
Addiction movies have always been a drag. But the best ones are visceral experiences—creepy, crawly, unshakeable, where the directors seems to be climbing the walls along with their subjects. For me, the Holy Trinity was released before the dawn of the New Hollywood: 1945’s “The Lost Weekend,” 1955’s “The Man With the Golden Arm,” and 1961’s “The Connection.” In the modern era, only “Requiem for a Dream,” that junkie’s psychotic nightmare, matches them in its transcendent agony. (A caveat: I’ve yet to subject myself to the Safdie Brothers’ “Heaven Knows What.”)
The rest, even the celebrated ones like “Less Than Zero” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” feel like variations on a tired, sordid theme: The addict experiments with his or her vice in an attempt to fill an aching void, cedes control to the substance, exploits or severs his closest relationships, and probably finishes in a catatonic collapse on the floor of a grungy public toilet. This familiar scene plays out just so in “Beautiful Boy,” a heavy enough moment rendered even thicker by the version of Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3” that director Felix Van Groeningen lathers on top. (For the ultimate addict’s “bottom,” forget the movies altogether, and skip to the harrowing conclusion of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.)
“Beautiful Boy” is based the best-selling 2008 memoir of the same name by author and journalist David Sheff, and on his son Nic’s own account of his addiction, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Sheff’s much-heralded book is insightful and personal, yet Van Groeningen’s movie goes through its genre’s bleak motions, with nothing novel its catalogue of agonies and embarrassments large and small, psychological and physical, cerebral and guttural.
These include the moment Nic (Timothee Chalamet, the breakout star of “Call Me By Your Name”) steals the eight dollars from his little brother’s savings for a late-night score, and the time he performs frantic CPR on his overdosed girlfriend, for whom he’s possibly corrupted for life. Shuffling between its two source materials, the film alternates between Nic’s drug life and attempts to go straight—the inevitable relapses, the imperfect solution of recovery—and David’s (Steve Carell) tortured attempt to understand his son’s condition, and his own role, if any, in causing it. This leads David through much soul-searching and investigative reporting, from visiting a specialist about the effect of meth on the brain to interviewing a street-corner addict to snorting the amphetamines himself.
Grim and humorless, the script, by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, is suffocatingly myopic. With the exception of about five minutes of screen time, every scene is informed by, or saturated in, Nic’s drug abuse and its effect on his family. Nothing else is permitted to enter, whether it’s David’s career as a Rolling Stonereporter; the love he shares with his second wife Karen, a visual artist; or Nic’s impressively long periods of sobriety. All is jettisoned in a favor of a morose single-mindedness, even if including these scenes would paint a more three-dimensional picture of the characters.
While it would be insulting to dismiss the film as an “after-school special”—a pejorative that’s pretty much meaningless to at least two generations—it’s safe to say it never rises above the cinematic equivalent of self-help literature. “Beautiful Boy” is an instructional video for parents and children unfortunate enough to identify with the actions onscreen. Observing them is like attending an intervention.
This is a movie deliberately designed to be endured, not loved—to be suffered through, as a kind of societal penance. It’s for AA meetings and treatment centers, not commercial cinemas.
“Beautiful Boy” is now playing at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood 16.