Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento’s Suspiria, reaches with slithery tentacles into your mind. Thom Yorke’s score provides a ceremonial call to worship in the darkness and haunts your thoughts. The film works its way inside you, creeping through witchy dance gyrations into your bloodstream. The imagery is beyond bat-shit disturbing. It’s the kind of film that will stay with you for a while.
Dakota Johnson plays Susie. who enrolls in a dance academy that is run by a coven of witches. The camerawork and film are simply exquisite and disturbing and Johnson is captivating. As a teen, Dakota took dance lessons and her body instinctively remember the moves. She also spent two years preparing for this role, watching The Red Shoes and reading Freud to help her tap into Susie’s inner world.
We caught up for a quick chat in Beverly Hills the day of the film’s LA premiere.
Luca has been obsessed with this project for years and you’ve worked with him on A Bigger Splash. So what did he tell you about Susie?
We were on set. We were shooting really late. There was the outdoor dining table and we were sitting around that table when he asked if I had seen Suspiria. I told him I hadn’t and that’s when he said he wanted to do the remake with me and Tilda. I said, “OK.” I was so in love with him and was loving that he wanted to work with me again.
We were on an island with zero wi-fi, so I watched the original when we got back. I felt so grateful that he opened my eyes to this world that I didn’t know. I understood that so many of my idols had drawn inspiration from the original. So, that was all two years — it feels like twenty — of preparing for this movie and learning about that Mary Wigman’s style of dance and watching films such as Fassbender. I watched The Red Shoes and I had never seen it. It was just extraordinary to me, and it’s now one of my favorite films. I read Freud’s The Uncanny which is how I feel she ends up in this place. There’s that feeling that is strangely familiar. I wanted her evolution to be very subtle, weird and creepy.
I’d get a random text from Luca saying, “Susie is a ginger.” We’d always talk, but there were a few years of getting ready and training.
What’s your background with dance? I feel 99% of the movie is you and those moves are just—
—Crazy! I danced when I was a little girl and I went to ballet classes and things. I danced at a studio where I was on the dance team, but I wasn’t the best. I stopped dancing when I was 15. I did understand choreography and I did understand dance in that way. so, that was very helpful for me. I learned with the fundamentals of ballet which is the opposite of German expressionist dance where you go against gravity to make things look really beautiful even if they’re very painful and delicate. You’re supposed to look as light as a feather and nothing is a problem. In this style of dance, you are aggressive and primal and sharp. You grunt. You breathe. It’s very angry. It’s very wild and feral. it’s with gravity. You do the opposite of everything I’ve learned. My background helped me because my body remembers things.
You talked about A Bigger Splash, where you go from this nice island to a mountain setting.
It was really cool. It felt like we were on a separate world. It felt like we were on a cloud looking down. We’d drive up this windy mountain and get to the hotel. We’d built a portion of the Berlin Wall outside the hotel, you’d pull up and you were there.
It was extraordinary. It felt like we were in this little zone. It felt like we were contained and I liked that because it felt very safe to be very extreme.
Let’s talk about her relationship with Madame Blanc, that hold she has on Susie and what it symbolizes.
There’s the theme of the mother in this film. It’s very intricate. It’s a lot about manipulation and possession and surviving your mother and becoming your mother. Not becoming your mother. I think that with Susie, she’s had this otherworldy magnetic pull towards Madame Blanc. She’s obsessed with her because she feels as if she is from her. It’s almost as if though she identifies more with Madame Blanc as a mother than her own mother. Then, simultaneously, I think they see themselves in each other. I think it’s a very very complicated subject. I think it’s a lot about thresholds and to what extent will you go to express yourself to save another. For Madame Blanc, dance is everything to her. She gave up her whole life as a woman in that time to speak through dance and through these younger girls. To then have Susie come in and match her, it’s both terrifying and exhilarating it’s nearly sensual but sensual. It’s very complicated. Do they hate each other?
What did you learn about yourself working at this level?
So much. I learned so much about myself. I learned I could completely disappear into my work which can be a good and bad thing. I learned that I will do anything with Luca.