Luca Guadagnino’s reworking of Dario Argento’s most famous giallo work, Suspiria, is similarly set in West Germany, in the late 1970s. But unlike the earlier film, which blew off this time- and place-setting information with a bit of on-screen text, this version takes pains to situate itself in its era. The big news is the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by Palestinian terrorists, demanding the release of imprisoned members of the Baader-Meinhof group. As unease rages on the streets, a dance student barges into a psychiatrist’s office. His copious notes on her, which include charts and diagrams and mysterious codes, look like Tolkien’s jottings for the Lord of the Rings books – but the dancer leaves us in little doubt about what she thinks is going on at her school. “They are witches,” she says, casually tossing off a fact that, in the Argento film, would have been considered a huge spoiler. No such prologue, in fact, exists in the original, which ran a lean 100 minutes. Guadagnino’s version goes on for 52 minutes more. How else to fill the time?
Does this sound like a “they have desecrated a classic” lament? Far from it, actually – for Argento’s Suspiria is far from a classic. He was aware of the nothingness of the material he was working with, and he compensated with deliriously high camp.
Does this sound like a “they have desecrated a classic” lament? Far from it, actually – for Argento’s Suspiria is far from a classic. He was aware of the nothingness of the material he was working with, and he compensated with deliriously high camp. The screen spilled over with assaultive colours and an overpowering Ennio Morricone-on-LSD score, by the Italian group Goblin. But Guadagnino is too “tasteful” a filmmaker, and he tries to make Argento’s film mean something. In other words, while Argento sought to give us a psychedelic sensory experience, Guadagnino strives for something intellectual and emotional. He wants us to pay attention, the way we do in Art Films – say, to the early scene with a framed wall hanging of this embroidered lettering: “A mother is someone who can take everyone’s place but whose place no one can take.” By the end, Suspiria has enough mothers to fuel a Darren Aronofsky sequel.
Guadagnino also sees Susie (poor Dakota Johnson, once again stumbling into a house with hidden rooms and kinky torture equipment) as not just an accidental discoverer of the dance school’s secrets but a deliberate sacrificial lamb, being fattened for the climactic slaughter. (And what Grand Guignol slaughter it is, filled with spurting blood and exploding bodies!) The idea isn’t bad, and I’m sure there are Expressionistic readings to be made – but it all wilts under the self-conscious (though undeniably tasteful) filmmaking, filled with “dream images” that appear to be from teenage Bergman’s diary. The sole point of enjoyment is the presence of Tilda Swinton, who really looks like a modern-dance diva. She plays the school’s headmistress and choreographer, and she makes her passion for her art palpably throb. “Movement is a series of shapes written in the air,” she tells Susie, as though whispering the secrets of the universe – you can see why Susie is so enraptured. Swinton may be no witch, but every time she’s on screen, she does some serious conjuring.
Mike Leigh’s new film, a historical, sets the scene with this smattering of history: “After 20 years of war, Napoleon’s France is defeated in Waterloo.” What, then, is Peterloo? We will have the answer in two-and-a-half hours (is that a requirement for art films these days?), but first, Leigh’s camera rests on a traumatised soldier on the battlefield, after the end of the war. He’s surrounded by smoke and bodies and blood, and he looks haunted. Years of movie-conditioning tell us this is the protagonist – why else would one individual be singled out over the rest? But soon, this man dissolves into the multitude – and this is Leigh’s big idea. He gives us names and faces, a great many names and faces, but they are simply representatives of the working classes of Northern England, who demand representation in the Parliament. It’s not about any one person, Leigh says. It’s a greater cause. It’s about everyone. Everyone does his or her bit, and so everyone needs to be on screen.
The first bit of (non-verbal) action occurs around the 1:30 mark, when three working-class men are tossed into prison. We’ve heard of the pages of history coming alive on screen. Peterloo feels like someone gave us the textbook, instead.
And everyone speaks. (And in words that even English speakers may find hard to follow — unless you know what “barmpot” is or what it means to “belder” at someone.) “This is a powder keg that will ignite at the slightest spark” “The time for speaking is over. Now is the time for action.” The incendiary tone of these lines, combined with the film’s incendiary subject – the 1819 St. Peter’s Field massacre at Manchester, where the Tory government unleashed a savage military attack on a peaceful gathering of working-class people demanding voting rights and representation – promise a great, big explosion of a movie. But then, Mike Leigh doesn’t do explosions. The actual massacre – stunningly staged, especially since the phrase “action spectacle” doesn’t pop to mind with Leigh – occurs only in the last 15 minutes. Until then, he lights a long, long fuse, filled with words. Leigh wants to impress upon us how these words – bit by bit, from this person and from that one – accrued into a big movement. But 135 minutes of exposition?
Early on, a judge punishes a working-class person in a manner disproportionate to the minor crime. This is followed by another judge punishing another working-class person in another manner disproportionate to the minor crime. This is followed by another judge ordering a working-class person to be hanged for stealing a coat. The design is certainly interesting in concept. Where filmmakers conflate events, streamline them to smoothen out a story, Leigh wants every little detail up there. But how many disproportionate punishments do we have to see being doled out before getting the point that the upper classes were a bunch of unsympathetic bastards? After a point, I kept looking at the time. It’s an hour and 15 minutes before there’s even talk of the gathering. The first bit of (non-verbal) action occurs around the 1:30 mark, when three working-class men are tossed into prison. We’ve heard of the pages of history coming alive on screen. Peterloo feels like someone gave us the textbook, instead.