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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