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: ORLANDO (1992) [Bradford International Film Festival 2014]

It is no exaggeration to claim that Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton are heroines of cinema. Seven years of preparation and persuasion led to them finally making the sumptuous and majestic Orlando in 1992. Adapted from the renowned Virginia Woolf novel, would it be inaccurate to claim Orlando as one of the most interesting fictional hero/ines of all time? He/she is certainly no ordinary character, never aging for 400 years and navigating the courts of Elizabeth I (played, ingeniously by Quentin Crisp), Charles II and eventually waking up as a woman to survive the stuffy Victorian age and the emerging 20th century.

Swinton defines her androgynous appeal, easily embodying the pixie-like Elizabethan courtier who encounters the patronage of the queen and yet is absolutely feminine as she wakes as a restless female in the 18th century. Swinton’s facets of gender neutralises Orlando, making the character a symbol of non-conformity. In one scene, in which Orlando learns that she no longer has claim to her lands now that she is a woman, we see how being transformed as a woman, Orlando is nullified by her contemporaries:

First Official: One, you are legally dead, and therefore cannot hold any property whatsoever.
Orlando: Ah. Fine.
First Official: Two, you are now a female.
Second Official: Which amounts to much the same thing.

orlando
Orlando’s death (or, her transformation into womanhood) is a catalyst for a sprawling epic tale already 200 years in the making. Interspersed with title cards such as ‘LOVE’, ‘DEATH’, ‘POETRY’, ‘POLITICS’ and ‘SEX’, Sally Potter divides Orlando’s life into connecting scenes of incidences which together paint a portrait of a multi-generational protagonist, task with staying young forever and yet growing ever more mature in life experiences.

Some we know to be dead even though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through all the forms of life; other are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six. (Woolf, ‘Orlando’, 1928)

Quite simply, this film is magnificently cinematic. From the music, composed by David Motion, Sally Potter and Jimmy Somerville, to the ornate costumes by Sandy Powell, it is amazing to learn this film struggled to find funding. The splendour of every frame is bewitching. The Jarman-esque quality of the narrative and the style roots the film firmly in the early 1990s, not only characterised by its modernised ending, but in the film’s allegiance with the sexual revolution permeating culture and politics in the last decade of the century. A particular pleasure is Swinton’s forth-wall-breaking asides to the camera, which could be interpreted as a charming tribute to Woolf, whose own works were littered with addresses to the reader.

It’s true to say that I was completely mesmerised by this film. Entering into the phantasmagorical world of Orlando, a dreamlike, incongruous world where the constraints of gender, power and possession are swept along by a sequence of events as fantastic as they are allegorical. A typically colourful report of Sally Potter dodging slates thrown from the roof of the old Bradford Odeon as she was escorted to the Media Museum by the festival co-director Neil Young was an amusing introduction to last night’s film. It’s good to know that no matter how utterly transformative cinema can be, in the instance of Orlando, you can always rely on being brought gently back to world. Wherever yours may be.