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: BIRDMAN (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Widely praised by critics, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has finally landed. The closing film of the 29th Leeds International Film Festival last year, this crazy, swooping joy-ride of movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu has been on the lips of critics everywhere ever since its UK premiere.

Michael Keaton returns to our screens as the titular ‘hero’ once more, playing Riggan Thomson, a former winged-superhero movie star trying to rebuild his reputation by starring, adapting and directing a Broadway play. He is joined by an impressive cast, all in someway connected to his ill-fated adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Zack Galifianakis is his best ever, shrugging off his perpetual hangover-days and unveiling a frustrated neurotic producer, desperate to save the play at whatever cost. The excellent Andrea Riseborough is Thomson’s put-upon actress girlfriend who is increasingly fascinated by the leading lady, Lesley played by Naomi Watts. Watts adds shades of her former role in Mullholland Drive (2001)- a woman dreaming of her ‘big break’, even as the world around her collapses.  While Ed Norton stirs up the tension as man-child maverick thesp Mike Shiner and hilariously embodies the rampant narcissism that is so easy to imagine in the personality of an actor.  Emma Stone once again holds her own as Thomson’s neglected daughter and personal assistant. Fresh from rehab, she rudely awakens Thomson to the responsibilities of fatherhood and the nature of celebrity in the age of social media.

Seemingly shot all in one take with some expert cuts, the continuous shots and long takes wonderfully recreate the confined pressure-cooker environment of a small theatre leading up to the opening night. Conversations in hallways, behind curtains or up in the rigging are uncovered and laid bare for us to listen in on. The narrative is structured into segments concerning the hurried preparations for each preview before their residency begins, each one as disastrous as the other.

As the trailer suggests, the film pays special attention to its wondrous special effects which are made all the more magical since you’re never really sure if it is all a whimsy of the protagonist. Thomson battles with his inner demon; an alter-ego taking the form of his most popular role, Birdman. Struggling to sleep, to hold his anarchic production and his crumbling family together, Thomson is at times a pitiful character, desperate to be taken seriously whilst also enjoying a penchant for self-destruction. His need for legend-status is granted in a way we least expect, highlighting the absurdity and bizarre nature of fame.

Of course, critics don’t get off lightly in this story. Nor should they. Lindsay Duncan has a small but memorable role as a powerful theatre critic who has the power to destroy or resurrect careers with the quick flourish of her pen. Acidic and acerbic, it is a terrifying insight to the love/hate relationship between the artists and critics on Broadway, and indeed in any hierarchical cultural society deemed capable what deciding what is worthy and what isn’t. Even when Raymond Carver, Thomson’s boyhood hero offers his review, it is arguably wholly disingenuous.

Strange, funny, surreal and at times awe-inspiring, Birdman is deserving of the buzz surrounding it. A film to talk about, to laugh and to wince at, Birdman is most certainly is an ‘event film’ with an impressive ensemble cast to boot. It is wonderful to see Michael Keaton on our screens again, reminding us just how charismatic of a performer he can be. When Thomson loses his temper, I did jokingly wonder if someone had uttered ‘Beetlejuice’ three times.

Highly recommended.