Review: SUSPIRIA (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed at Hyde Park Picture House as part of #LIFF2018.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Suspiria is gory. While the original poured deep red colours into its set design and cinematography, the gushing blood red in this incantation of Suspiria are reserved only for the acts of body horror that occur. The violent body transformations are shocking and nauseating, and dreamlike fast cuts of disturbing imagery have a trance-like, subliminal power. Certain scenes will last for a long time in the memory, that’s for sure.

Welcome to Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria, a 30-year ambition finally realised and hot off the heels of his evocative  2017 sun-drenched tale, Call Me By Your Name. A switch to horror and a ‘remake’ of a Dario Argento classic befuddled many, but with a stellar cast, an updated but equally unforgiving plot and flashes of gore, Suspiria tantalises and mystifies in equal measure once again.

Set in Berlin in 1977 at the prestigious Markos Company dance school, Tilda Swinton is Madame Blanc, the austere but brilliant principal who is immediately drawn to new American student, Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion. As Guadagnino has been keen to point, Swinton also plays Lutz Ebersdorf as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a kindly psychiatrist that is more or less the emotional centre of the film.

Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as Patricia looms large over the opening acts, a young student targeted by the teachers within their secret coven, but determined to escape their grasp. Johnson, previously seen in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) alongside Swinton, is mesmeric as Susie, unknowable and seeming naive to the real trade of the Markos Company. Johnson and Swinton’s scenes together, even those as they stare at one another within a mirrored rehearsal room or appear to be talking without speaking across a crowded restaurant, are electrifying.

As points of view shift, the well-worn narrative of ‘an American in a strange country’ is left behind as Susie soon becomes a dancing conduit for the coven’s sadistic spells. Contorting, tribal dancing are never too far away from seeming like demonic possession and the camera, and Madame Blanc’s gaze, lingers on Susie’s unexpectedly libidinous movements. We are left to wonder if this is just her dancing style or has her time at the Markos Company transformed her already?

A history of the coven’s acts are hidden deep in the bowels (wrong choice of words there) of the school, horrific antiquities and weapons of choice such as the swift metal hooks that swipe as Thom Yorke’s haunting soundtrack swells. Berlin in 1977, the backdrop of the film seen on TVs or echoed through a radio, is a turbulent time that saw the hijacking of a plane and kidnappings by the Red Army Faction. The real world events act as a counterpoint to supernatural violence and its struggles for supremacy. Female autonomy, expressed through cruelty and occultism subterfuge, is attainable, if only as a result of atrocity and suppression. Taking place in a decade that rode the wave of radical feminism and when Germany continued to grapple with its position as a post-war nation, the coven’s secrets mirror the setting’s overwhelming struggle for normalcy. The coven’s power is an affirmation of the period’s feminist movement operating on the fringes of mainstream society.

The abuse of power is an overwhelming force throughout Suspiria, from the long-lasting generational guilt and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to the coven’s secret manipulation and disposal of unsuspecting students. The school’s faculty are like a rubber band, stretching and contorting between the need for secrecy and culpability. As Susie, Patricia, Sam and Dr Klemperer become further entangled in the dance school/coven’s acts, the more they become manipulated, enlightened and repulsed by the coven’s violent tyranny.

A warped, unsettling and nihilistic film that slips from grasp just a handle on it seems within reach, Suspiria is likely to frustrate as many as it is devilishly delights. Immaculately directed and designed, Guadagnino shows once again why he is a contemporary master at period detail and sensuality on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

Some films make you angry, some films make you cry, and some films make you squirm, and some of the best make you feel them all. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those films.

It’s a hard sell to a mainstream audience I suppose – the story of a young LGBT+ person’s experience of gay conversion therapy – but it’s a vital watch for anyone in doubt that these issues are no longer prevalent and affect lives daily. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, also out in cinema, both are period stories that starkly reflect the fractured and disturbing prejudices and methods of discrimination that still pervade throughout in the US today. It’s easy to factor in that this film was made during the 2016 presidential election, a putrid time that uncovered a swath of uncertainty and fear about how minorities, including the LGBT+ community, would be treated in Trump’s American nightmare.

The director of TMOCP, Desiree Akhavan first came to my attention with her writing/directing debut, Appropriate Behaviour (which may still be on Netflix if you have a quick search), a funny and seemingly personal tale of an Iranian-American bisexual person navigating the single life and familial relations in New York. The non-tropey bisexual on film is such a rare find, so Appropriate Behaviour was something of a revelation to me. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to take on this new story of another LGBT+ experience.

The 1993-set TMOCP is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, and the film takes the core plot of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who after being caught having sex with her best friend on prom night, is shipped off to a Christian camp called God’s Promise to be cured of her “same-sex attraction.”

The camp is an eerie place of fake smiles and hushed tones, where even Cameron’s cassette tape of The Breeders is even too risqué for consumption. We watch in disbelief as Cameron’s and the other camp members’ “sins” are explained away as symptoms of prior traumas. Being over indulged with sports by a parent is weaponised as tool for shame. Thankfully, the film creates moments that allow for humour, piercing what could be unbearable into a more manageable, if still shocking, world to witness. There’s a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Up’, as much an anthem for confused discontentment now as it was in 1993, that raises genuine smiles. And in case you wondered, ‘Blessercise’ is a real thing.

Moretz is excellent, her eyes are incredibly expressive as they scan the rest of her therapy group as she tries, or perhaps hopes to not, see herself in them. At times we’re unsure if the ‘therapy’ is finally working on Cameron, just as we are party to the devastating affects of what is essentially, sanctioned torture. My joy at seeing Jennifer Ehle (please cast her in everything please) was short-lived due only to her stand-out depiction of Dr. Marsh, a softly spoken Nurse Ratched, rigid in her belief of being on the right side of morality.  Co-stars Sasha Lane, winningly called Jane Fonda,  and Forrest Goodluck are Cameron’s cool-for-school kindred spirits as they come to terms with just how they got to God’s Promise in the first place and if indeed, they will ever get out as the same people. I particularly enjoyed Cameron’s assigned roommate, Erin, who easily could have been used simply as a mode of diffusing the tension, but like everyone in this film, gets a chance to show many facets of themselves.

Though the ‘doctors’ of God’s Promise attempt to reduce everyone down to their own  unique behavioral ‘iceberg’ diagrams, the characters constantly, with varying degrees of success, break free from their icy surroundings and assigned gender/sexual  straitjackets. I was reminded also of Todd Hayne’s Safe, another film that dealt with clinical psychologies and enforced communal life in the 1990s.

The final wordless scenes in the film are as optimistic as we can hope to expect in a tale that so rooted in realism, and though we cannot know what the future holds for these characters, the morning sun has never felt more liberating.