Suspiria: Dario Argento V Luca Guadagnino.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria (’77)

Dario Argento’s sixth film, Suspiria, was released in 1977 but it’s as startlingly arresting to look at, and to listen to, today as it was then. And that despite the fact that much of what was so original about the film at the time has now become commonplace.

Written with his wife, the actress Daria Nicolodi, and inspired by a Thomas De Quincey essay, the film follows the arrival of a teenage dancer at a prestigious ballet school in Germany. What elevates it and so immediately distinguishes it, is the way that it brilliantly melds the conventions of horror with the aesthetics of classic, art house cinema.

Lines and colours to die for.

The result is a film that delves deep beneath the surface to explore the depths of the subconscious, to produce an expressionistic phantasmagoria decked out in the pristine lines and primary colours of a particularly lurid art deco.

Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli based their colour palette on Disney’s use of blocks of primary colours in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And they shot the film using the last three strip Technicolor cameras in Europe, to create the same kind of intensity that the process had given to the likes of the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Argento teamed up again with the Italian prog rock band Goblin, with whom he’d worked on Deep Red (’75), to produce the sort of eerie and unsettlingly child-like score that would later become such a cliché in the decades to come.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (’77).

It’s impeccably crafted, dazzlingly original and, if anything, is even more visually and sonically striking today than it was when first it was released.

Luca Guadagnino seemed initially to offer so much potential. After the promise of his third feature, I am Love in 2010, he made the visually impressive A Bigger Splash in 2015, reviewed earlier here. But he followed that up with the anaemic Call Me By Your Name in 2017, reviewed earlier here. And now there’s this, his “homage” to Suspiria.

Ah, Technicolor…

Gone are the primary colours and any sense of visual flair, gone too is any attempt to connect what’s going on up on screen with primal fears buried in the subconscious. The witches are still present and correct, as is the setting of Germany in the late 1970s. What we are offered instead is the wholly irrelevant backdrop of the political chaos fostered by the Baader Meinhof group, a tedious Me Too subtext and an extraordinarily ill-judged Nazi coda.

The question that nags throughout, apart from how in God’s name did they manage to drag this out for over 2 ½ hours, is, why on earth did they bother? What, literally, were they thinking? As Argento himself commented to Eric Kohn in his IndieWire interview here:

“Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

Ralf Fiennes injects much needed life into A Bigger Splash.

In retrospect, and ironically, given his choice of subject matter, what’s missing from Guadagnino’s films is plain to see. With the exception of A Bigger Splash, they are each so bloodless, flaccid and completely devoid of passion. There’s an all too revealing profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, here, where Guadagnino comments airily that he has recently been spending as much time shooting ads, and on his latest pet pastime, interior design, as he has on film making. Imagine what Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard would have made of that.

In the meantime, if you’re more interested in full blooded cinema than you are in Wallpaper, treat yourself to Argento’s timeless gem. You can see the trailer to Suspiria (77) here.

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A Bigger Splash, in case you missed it.

A Bigger Splash.

A Bigger Splash (2015) is the fourth film from Luca Guadagnino, and the one he made before the much acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, which was nominated earlier this year for four Academy awards, and which I reviewed here.

Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a Bowie-esque rock god who has decamped with her sculpted, documentary film maker man to the island of Pantelleria, one of the many stepping stones that link Africa to Europe in the southern Mediterranean.

Call Me By Your Name.

But the peace and quiet of their island idyll is shattered with the arrival of Harry, Marianne’s long-time partner and one-time producer, and the one who introduced her to her new beau. And on his arm he arrives with what seems to be his latest conquest, but what turns out to be his recently discovered teenage daughter.

That peace and quiet is considerably more fragile than first it appeared. Marianne is recovering from surgery on her throat, and must refrain from speaking, while her man is a recovering alcoholic who one year earlier made an unsuccessful attempt at taking his own life. Harry meanwhile is, unsurprisingly, still in love with Marianne, and his daughter has arrived there with an agenda all of her own.

Dakota Johnson making a splash.

There’s a wonderful sense of menace and impending doom which contrasts gloriously with the warmth and colour of the landscape which provides the film with its lush backdrop. And the combination of untrammelled hedonism, base carnality and the kinds of primary colours that only the Mediterranean can produce, proves a heady mix. And yet.

As good as A Bigger Splash is, it’s not quite the definitive cinematic marker one was hoping for. Like I am Love (2009) before, and Call Me By Your Name (2017) after, it is ever so slightly too cool and aloof to really engage on an emotional level. It’s definitely the best of what Guadagnino has called his trilogy of desire, but desire is the one thing that’s missing from all three. Granted, there’s no shortage of idealized desire, of requited love, in Call Me By Your Name. But desire without pain is meaningless. If you want to witness true desire, watch Brief Encounter (1946).

David Lean’s peerless Brief Encounter.

The problem is, I think, that Guadagnino works exclusively as a director, and relies on others for his source material, and on scriptwriters to then write his scripts for him. This frees him up to explore the stylistic elements of his films, and there’s no question that A Bigger Splash looks magnificent. The film’s signature stamp are its many close ups of a face masked by mirrored sunglasses, which manage at once to be an enigmatic portrait of the protagonist on view, and an expansive establishing shot of the landscape reflected behind.

But it also means that he doesn’t pursue his chosen themes with the same kind of obsessiveness and purblind passion as does, say, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni or, most obviously, Bergman.

Fabulous Fiennes.

Still, what elevates A Bigger Splash and really brings it to life is the magnetic performance that Ralph Fiennes gives as Harry. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He is both the most obviously annoying and insufferably obnoxious character, who you just know will ruin everything, because he always ruins everything. And, the most impossibly charming individual you could ever hope to meet, and the one person who you know will make whatever the evening is a memorable one.

You can see the trailer of A Bigger Splash here.

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