in the fifth of Luca Guadagnino’s six act opus, Dakota Johnson asks “why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?” It is a question that rattles around your head with dread: surely there are not worse horrors yet to come? There are, and it has all of the operatic extravagance of some pandemoniac fever dream. The film is two and a half hours long – surpassing the original 1977 Italian classic by an hour – yet, I would not take a single frame out of this bombastic, overwrought masterpiece.
The basic premise of both the original and this version can be summed up as follows: an American (Dakota Johnson) travels to Germany to enter the prestigious Markos dance academy, only to discover it is run by a coven of witches. However, Guadagnino fleshes this out in wild and inventive ways to make his ‘cover version’, as he calls it, thoroughly deserved. In contrast to the relatively atemporal original, Guadagnino has made a film with a precise sense of time and place: 1977, Berlin. We are thrown head-first into a city split by Cold War and suspicion. The guilt and shame it feels for the war seeps through the streets. The Berlin Wall looms like a leviathan, and the radio is humming with reports of the Baader-Meinhof hijacking. This setting is beautifully constructed by the production design. Walls are bestrewed with Bowie posters, Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanch swans around carelessly in the most floaty of floaty dresses – think a less-colourful version of “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush.
“only an aesthete could have held my gaze at these gruesome images”
The film isn’t interested in the jump-scares that dominate a lot of popcorn horror. Yet it is horrifying, and that comes from brutalist voyeurism. There is a prolonged sequence, for example, in which a ballerina becomes contorted by an enchantment, that made people walk out in disgust at a preview screening. Guadagnino has been very open in labelling himself as an aesthetic director, which has often been used as a criticism of his work. Yet, only an aesthete could have held my gaze at these gruesome images. Apart from the overtly grotesque, there are also dream sequences which utilise montage and the Freudian uncanny to a terrific extent, and leave one feeling truly stressed and terrorised. Despite being the indie-darling director behind last year’s Call Me by Your Name, he has proved himself as truly adept at creating not just a good scare or shock, but an absolutely uncomfortable experience.
One aspect of the film that perhaps has not been spoken about enough is its sense of fun. Performances are overacted, camera movements wilfully intrusive, and the film swings between its slightly pompous themes and the knowingly camp. The witches/dance teachers seem more like a feminist union than anything sinister, with civil voting for leadership, and nightly communal suppers underscored with some of the coolest jazz you’ll hear. These punctures of slight levity save the film from pretension. However, that’s not to say that I didn’t like the pretentious aspects of it. The bold references to the works of Carl Jung – to egos, ids and archetypes – bring greater depth to the film. They prep the audience to contemplate those ideas when it comes to its final act. This allows the viewer to assess the film as it happens; to engage with it fully from the off. As someone who often misses crucial aspects of subtext, these little asides acted as a guiding light, and the film reaped further rewards because of it.
The more I allowed the film to be what it is rather than prescribing some clear tone or genre for it, the more I began to thoroughly enjoy the ride. With all of the varying themes wrestling for priority, the film is sure to beckon repeat viewings to capture every line of dialogue and stylistic choice, or simply to listen again to the haunting score by Thom Yorke (of Radiohead fame). I’d argue that the film gracefully vaults over the original with balletic flare. Just, think more Ken Russell’s The Devils than Call Me by Your Name.