The Witches of Suspiria: Luca Guadagnino on the Women Behind His Horror Remake

In Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s sixth feature film and follow-up to Call Me by Your Name, Dakota Johnson’s choreography is Timothée Chalamet’s overripe peach: Moments after performing the movie’s most intense dance sequence, her character, Susie Bannion, exhales and pronounces, “[That’s] what it must feel like to fuck.”

It’s an exceptionally blunt line for Guadagnino’s loose remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, whose ideas, as with Guadagnino’s other films, are best communicated not via dialogue but in its deeply detailed design and visuals. In his version of Suspiria (in theaters October 26), which, like the original, takes off with the arrival of the American dancer Susie Bannion to a famed Berlin dance company only to find that it is run by a coven of witches led by the domineering Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the brutality of the dancing—there are grotesque, bruising, and at times impossible contortions of the female body—says all that Guadagnino wants you to know about the violence that women suffer, physically and psychically, and occasionally at the hands of each other. “This is a movie about the dynamics of power in the realm of women,” Guadagnino explained recently. “And power comes from violence and control over the other. So, of course, we wanted to discuss these topics visually in the film.”

Dakota Johnson on the set of Suspiria with director Luca Guadagnino. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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Guadagnino first encountered Argento’s Suspiria when he was 10 years old. He was wandering by an abandoned movie theater in a small Italian town on the Adriatic coast when the poster caught his eye: “This woman in a ballerina pose, with her head severed,” he recalled. “Very eerie, very evocative. I was bewitched forever.” A few years later, he finally saw the actual film—he was 14, it came on TV at home (“a transgressive screening for me”)—and Guadagnino thought constantly of remaking it ever since. When it came time to create the look of his version, he and his director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom considered the politics of the time (the film takes place during the German Autumn, when the Baader-Meinhof Gang was terrorizing the streets of Berlin), which led them to visual influences from the era: the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and then the Polish-French painter Balthus. “His imagery is an imagery that is eerie and perverse—perfect for a thing like this,” Guadagnino said of Balthus, who was notorious for painting very young girls beautifully but also too suggestively. “I think the art is never about the content,” Guadagnino protested, when I ask whether Balthus’s subject matter had an influence. “It’s all about the form.”

Ingrid Caven and Guadagnino contemplating the coven’s dinner table on set. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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It’s true that there is very little that is explicitly sexual about Suspiria, other than Susie’s ecstatic self-appraisal. And Guadagnino and his collaborators have worked hard to minimize men onscreen; the only male role of any significance to the story is a psychoanalyst named Dr. Josef Klemperer, who investigates the dance company after one of his clients (a dancer played by Chloë Grace Moretz) disappears—and he is played by Swinton under hours of makeup, even if for months Guadagnino and Swinton claimed in press conferences and PR stunts and print interviews that he was actually played by an unknown actor by the name of Lutz Ebersdorf. Swinton eventually copped to the ruse just days ago, but when we spoke early last week, Guadagnino was still sticking to his story: “No, no, no,” he replied when I brought it up. “That’s Lutz, not Tilda.”

Guadagnino directing…is it Tilda Swinton or Lutz Ebersdorf? Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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The film’s bleak frames—the damp winter setting, the dark recesses of the abandoned pile at the base of the Italian Alps that stood in for the dance company—feel most alive when the coven of witches Guadagnino has assembled are all together, feasting and drinking and fighting and casting spells. Some of them suffer a bloody end in the film’s gruesome, stomach-turning finale, an indelible feat of makeup and choreography and practical effects that took five days and some 50 different shots to make—and probably had something to do with critics experiencing nausea at an early screening and Johnson claiming the shoot “fucked me up so much that I had to go to therapy.” But they are all women whom Guadagnino has a great affection for, starting with Swinton (this is their fourth film together) but also including the likes of Ingrid Caven, Fassbinder’s muse and ex-wife; the great theater actress Christine Leboutte; and the fashion model Alek Wek, who towers above the rest of the coven. “I have always been absolutely in love with Alek,” Guadagnino gushed. “She’s such an icon for me.” He went on, “It’s been a great joy to encompass all my loves for the movie. How great it is to have all these witches together!”

Alek Wek with Guadagnino on set. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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