Meeting Gorbachev

My parents made sure I watched the jubilant dismantling of the Berlin Wall on TV, “This is important,” they said. And they were right. Since then, I got an advanced degree in German cultural history and Berlin became my favorite city in the world, so I often find myself thinking about the incredible transformation of that city and of Germany since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In English, roughly: This building used to be in another country

In English, roughly: This building used to be in another country

Mikhail Gorbachev is arguably the single person most specifically responsible for those transformations, the ones that get me choked up on random streets when I have the privilege of spending time in Berlin. This fact is not and has never been lost on most Germans, certainly not Werner Herzog. There are plenty of people, especially in America, who don’t know Gorbachev and the events that ended the Cold War or actively misremember them. One of the many differences between me and Werner Herzog is that when he thinks the world could do with some better remembering, he can arrange a series of interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev himself and make a movie about it.

Meeting Gorbachev’s poster

Meeting Gorbachev’s poster

Meeting Gorbachev is the name of the resulting documentary, referring both to Herzog’s face-to-face meetings with Gorbachev, but also, obliquely to the need to essentially re-introduce Mikhail Gorbachev to a new generation. Our first time sitting down with Herzog and Gorbachev, Herzog begins by asking a presumptuous question, whose premise Gorbachev immediately rejects, but who then proceeds to deliver an affecting and informative story about meeting his first German. Gorbachev’s delightful response to this opening (for us) question sets the tone for the rest of the film and demonstrates quite clearly the core reason that Herzog wanted to make this documentary about Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev beyond all that history stuff: he is a warm, generous, intelligent man with vast reserves of sympathy for his fellow human beings who was 87 years old at time of recording. We may not have him much longer. 

Herzog’s affection for Gorbachev is evident, but Herzog is never afraid to ask challenging or even brusque questions or to simply endure through awkward moments. The jarring awkwardness of some of these interviews is fascinating. Herzog and his co-director André Singer choose not to cut away from the many pauses in conversation as the translators work to keep up with the questions and the responses, so we see two people engaged in an act of communication that often almost feels like it’s teetering on the brink of collapse. As a filmmaking tool, I found these unwieldy silences endearing, particularly as the subject matter gets weightier and more personal, but there’s no question that Herzog’s face to faces with Gorbachev are a bumpy ride, in stark contrast to the polish of the other interviews.

 Herzog soon pulls back from the interview proper to power us through Gorbachev’s personal history at warp speed: his childhood, his education, his marriage, and his career as an apparatchik in Stavropol, the 1940s to the 1980s, in less than five minutes. The film’s primary interest in Gorbachev are the events that make him beloved of so many Germans, so we slow down once we get to the pathetic end of Brezhnev’s term as General Secretary in 1982. There is some irony in hearing Herzog at 76 discuss the spectacular failures of imagination and leadership of a series of infirm, doddering old men with evident disgust for their age but the archival footage he and Singer have gathered of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko absolutely bears out his disdain for these sickly men who couldn’t run an office, let alone a nuclear superpower. You could not ask for a better representation of a rotten system that needed change. 


Gorbachev brought youth and vitality to the office of General Secretary, but he also brought a level of sincerity that the Soviet Union had rarely experienced in its leaders (and arguably none of its successor states have since). Gorbachev remains a true believer in the core humanist values of Communism. Perestroika and glasnost were not buzzwords to him, they were not Soviet brand management. Gorbachev believed then, and clearly still believes, that you could bring democracy and transparency to Communism, that you could make it better. What’s striking about the other collection of extremely old men in this movie, the one Herzog assembles to talk about the end of the Cold War, is that none of these people is even remotely close to having a good opinion of Communism, but they all recognize and react to Gorbachev’s sincerity. James Baker and George Shultz (who was flat out old when he was SecState in 1986 - he’s gorram 98 in this film) are old guard Republicans. Lech Walesa never had any kind of love for Communism. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could not be accused of anything like affinity for ideas even in the neighborhood of Communism, but they all understood that Gorbachev was different, that in Thatcher’s words “You can do business with him.”

Reagan and Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit

Reagan and Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit

The stark comparisons between the men who led Poland, Hungary, the US, and Russia at the end of the Cold War and the current leaders of those countries are there to be made and are undoubtedly worth dwelling on though Meeting Gorbachev does not do so. The pieces are there for Herzog to create a searing moral indictment of the catastrophic failures of leadership and morality that are responsible for this utterly grotesque farce of a geopolitical catastrophe we currently live in. Instead of putting those angry pieces together for us, he shows us the 600 km human chain the folks formed in the Baltics, he shows us an Austrian news presenter who spends more time talking about how to get rid of slugs than the Hungarians cutting down the literal part of the Iron Curtain, he shows us the Monday protesters chanting “Wir Sind das Volk” “WE are the people.” Herzog wants us to dwell on expressions of hope and bewilderment, on the dreams Gorbachev’s work inspired and/or moved forward, not frustration and not rage.

Herzog and Singer also show us what kind of man Gorbachev is and was, the man in the chair across from him, the man who mourns the death of his wife, now and then. It is powerfully fitting that this film ends with Gorbachev’s attempt to grapple with his legacy, what is and what could have been. Herzog bluntly asks Gorbachev to share his epitaph. Gorbachev demurs, offering only one that he liked from a friend, which is beautiful in its agonizing simplicity: “We tried.” That still gets to me. I don’t think Gorbachev meant it in an angry way, but in my current state of mind, that’s as close as the film gets to a f#&$ you to the jackasses strutting around the world stage today, who will never be able to say with any honesty or justice that they tried to make the world a better place. Herzog does not want to leave us with that anger though, as plainly as it pulses in my blood; he wants to leave us with poetry. Meeting Gorbachev is an act of remembering, an attempt to dream out loud again the impossible dreams of democracy, freedom, and nuclear disarmament so that what could have been might some day be.

To: Astrid, maybe someday we will be together . . .

To: Astrid, maybe someday we will be together . . .

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit is a vibe, an experience, powered by the sonic grace of some of the foremost pop music operators in the world and the visual grace of a riveting performance, songs included, by Elle Fanning and a talented creative team led by cinematographer Autumn Durald. The title refers to the fictional Idol-like competition that Fanning’s Violet Valenski is inspired to enter as a way to escape her rural surroundings and drown herself in music. There is an awkward tension between the grinding familiarity of the Pop Idol fantasy and the sheer amount of style and ingenuity that writer/director Max Minghella infuses into Violet’s inner world and the gaudy trappings of the TV based popularity machine throughout the film that the filmmakers can’t quite resolve, which is my only qualm or complaint in an otherwise inventive and evocative film.

Elle Fanning stars in Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit (photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street)

Elle Fanning stars in Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit (photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street)

Teen Spirit begins with a lovely, languid prologue set to the strains of dark dream pop mistress Grimes which introduces us to Violet’s vibrant interior musical life, powered by one of those  tactile old iPods music nerds are always going on about, in the fields around her ramshackle house on the Isle of Wight. It’s a lovely, deep inhale before we power out of the starting blocks for Teen Spirit’s 92 minute wind sprint. The film gestures quickly and efficiently enough at the outlines of Violet’s external life that we can catch the contours at speed, masterfully aided by costumer designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s expressive application of the track suit trappings of Violet’s working class milieu. 

Elle Fanning stars as Violet in Teen Spirit, an LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street release

Elle Fanning stars as Violet in Teen Spirit, an LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street release


It doesn’t take long for us to transition from experiencing Violet’s taste in music to experiencing Violet’s, and Fanning’s vocal ability. We catch her singing the tail end of Tegan and Sara’s “I was a Fool,” a rueful pop song whose style is decidedly out of joint with the dingy lounge Violet sings it in, though her vocal quality is not lost on down-on-his-luck former opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric who appears in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, no reason for mentioning that), the unlikely mentor who will help push and prod and annoy Violet into unleashing the star inside of her when she finally grasps the opportunity the Teen Spirit billboards shout about in this neglected part of the United (for now) Kingdom.

Teen Spirit offers us a few more musical teases like the prologue and that Tegan and Sara joint in rundown place with the dreamily glowing juke box and glorious moment of solitude in her room when a frustrated Violet thrashes her heart out to “I’m Just a Girl” (which is having a bit of a moment), trial balloons floated by Minghella and company before Violet’s audition for Teen Spirit when the film really takes flight. Minghella dives into Violet’s inner world as she works up to the emotional state necessary to crank out Robyn’s jam “Dancing on My Own.” Minghella weaves her inner exhaustion, her fears, how it makes her feel to sing and her fractured relationship with her mother into this, well, music video. It’s an elegant privilege to be granted access to Violet’s interiority, rather than having her take a deep breath and sing a great song. It’s a performance reserved only for us, the privileged viewers allowed inside Violet’s inner world and it puts the judges in their place (we don’t even see their faces): music is Violet’s life and they can recognize it or not. 

A sample of the neon vibe in Teen Spirit with Elle Fanning, photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street

A sample of the neon vibe in Teen Spirit with Elle Fanning, photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street

Each subsequent performance for the competition, which Violet naturally qualifies for, what are we even doing if she doesn’t, becomes more and more stylistically elaborate, more explicitly influenced by neon drenched music videos, though it maintains a dreamy, gauzy vibe even to the bops. Minghella never loses sight of Violet’s inner life, the organizing principle of the film. Violet’s song choices alternate between elegiac and defiant and they are utterly free of treacle or condescension. Pop music is forever accused of triviality (bubble gum, disposable, etc) but Teen Spirit explores pop music performance animated by substance, sadness, and heft, and doesn’t at all judge you for wanting to dance at the same time.

Teen Spirit passingly acknowledges many of the topics and subplots that are instantly recognizable from typical teen movies about discovering yourself and success; many of those films devote themselves entirely to exploring romantic jealousy, teen angst, school bullying, the dangers of being a young woman being by herself. Teen Spirit doesn’t dwell on any of them. On some levels this is rewarding. We are mercifully spared the dreary task of watching “the drama” of a reality TV competition play out in a movie, a meta level of boredom I hope never to participate in. On the other hand, If there’s a “but” hanging over Teen Spirit, it is that the lightning quick storytelling and the almost solipsistic focus on Violet seem to indicate that Minghella doesn’t have much insight into the fame machine. Fame and stardom are clearly a lived experience for both Minghella (you might know who his dad was and he’s a famous actor in his own right) and Fanning, so there are flashes of wisdom and maturity, moments when you can tell they recognize there is something wrong with the system, but not well enough to articulate what that thing is, let alone how to fix it. For all of the visual verve of this film and Fanning’s great performance, this lack of attention to issues that the film itself raises is a weight that drags the film down a bit from its deliriously stylish heights.

Elle Fanning is going to fight for her pop soul in Teen Spirit, photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Stree

Elle Fanning is going to fight for her pop soul in Teen Spirit, photo courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Stree

So Teen Spirit is in danger of losing itself just before Violet’s final performance, but fortunately Minghella and company re-group and deliver hard on the Teen Spirit finale, in two parts. The first part is just great storytelling as Violet puts on her game face in the long walk from backstage to onstage that is an exquisite short film in and of itself, making the best possible use of all the elements of good long walk and talk, but without the talk. It’s a stunning testament to Fanning’s quality as an actress that just watching her face is such an experience (ultimately, the entire movie is dedicated to the idea that watching Fanning’s face is a worthwhile experience and it’s not wrong). And then Violet goes out on stage and absolutely owns Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” It’s such a shatteringly good experience, such a ferocious performance that the movie could have ended with the song. I would have left the theater entirely satisfied if we never knew whether Violet won the competition or not. Minghella gives us a coda that asserts unequivocally that she did win, but it is a light touch and just enough for us to appreciate that Violet became a star as much on her own terms as is possible in this world (this coda features a brief, full-on collision between Elle Fanning as Violet and Elle Fanning as Elle Fanning, a flash into the open of a self-reflectivity that murmurs below the surface of the whole). Minghella might have made more out of this story and this performance, but you know what? I’m not here to kill anyone’s vibe, let alone Elle Fanning’s. Teen Spirit is a gauzy, dreamy bubble gum pop fantasy with great taste in music. It’s a bop.

Suspiria and the German Autumn

The Terror the Past Offers the Present

Tilda in Suspiria.jpeg

Imagine, if you will, a time of danger and chaos. It’s not terribly difficult here in early 2019 to do if you are even moderately Online, but imagine with some specificity that the United States Secretary of Agriculture, a man who was a member of the Klan in the not-distant-past, but doesn’t regret anything he and those boys got up to, is kidnapped. And let’s say the government has decided they definitely will not negotiate with terrorists (anymore) and won’t be releasing any political prisoners/terrorists like the terrorist kidnappers want. 40 days and nights this drama unfolds, with protests and counter protests and the kidnappers almost getting caught. And then, as if that weren’t enough, a commercial airliner is taken hostage in solidarity with the goals of the terrorist kidnappers but by different terrorist kidnappers who also demand the release of the same political prisoners and over the following days take a tour of airports in, I don’t know, the Middle East taking on just enough fuel to get somewhere else but never quite managing to get away. Then, at one of the stops in Africa, a US special forces take out the one set of terrorist kidnappers, after which a bunch of those same political prisoners die in custody, and then the first terrorist kidnappers (who are technically the second) just murder SecAg. That’s insane, right? That’s a thriller you can barely justify the plot of if you dared to pitch it at all (please don’t pitch that movie #TooSoon).

Except . . . that basically did happen in Germany in 1977. The German Autumn, as those ~40 days are known began with the remains of the Red Army Faction kidnapping Hanns Martin Schleyer, a former SS officer, high up in the West German government, a man who never showed much regret for his past and culminated with the storming of the Landshut (Lufthansa Flight 181) in Mogadishu, which triggered the deaths of several founding members of the Red Army Faction (still debated whether those deaths were by suicide or by cop), and the execution of Schleyer, which lost the RAF pretty much any and all public sympathy it ever had (which was considerable, so that was a big effin’ deal™).

That insanely turbulent time is a conspicuous part of the background of Luca Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria, a horror film about a dance troupe in Berlin who also happen to be a coven of witches. I think Guadagnino wants to take us back to 1977, at least as much as he wants to remake a 1977 film, and that he is just as concerned with the horrors of history, and the present, as the horrors perpetrated by these witches.

Suspiria opens with an American dancer, Patricia (played by Chloe-Grace Moretz) furtively going to a German psychotherapist, Doctor Josef Klemperer (played by, I think I can safely say this now, as we are in Spoilertown, Jake . . . Tilda Swinton), who she has evidently seen before. She seems desperate and urgent, in dire need of escaping from, well, witches. Klemperer, naturally enough, thinks that the witches’ conspiracy she described for him is an elaborate form of sublimation of the actual tensions and very human machinations of her life among the artists. We know as an audience that this is dead wrong (unless you somehow didn’t know going in that this was a remake of a famous witch movie, always possible) and things will go very poorly (in a visually stunning way).

In some ways, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is two movies running almost parallel for most of the film. David Kajganich’s screenplay and Guadagnino’s create a complex interplay between Dr. Klemperer, who is in possession of Patricia’s copious notes on the witches and their every shifting power dynamic, and the things that her new best friend Sara (played with impressive depth and range by Mia Goth) does, which ultimately gets both of them in profoundly deep trouble. The path to that trouble though involves spending more time with Klemperer on his own in divided Berlin than is strictly necessary for us to understand what’s up with Patricia and those dancer/maybe witches. For example, he spends quite some time contemplating the loss of his wife, who disappeared at the end of World War II, in his East German Kleingarten (a tradition without parallel in America, but significant in Germany — many families own a tiny parcels of common areas with a little hut and a wee garden). Klemperer as a character occupies several spaces a country mile outside of the dance studio in Berlin, BUT they often explicitly connect us with the German past and the tumultuous state of that German present in ways that are quite detailed, such as the protest banners in his Innenhof that equate the cops with fascists.

Klemperer is old enough to struggle to reconcile what he did or did not do (and we never quite learn specifics — enhancing the generality of his questions of conscience) during the war, you know the one with all the ethnic cleansing, no the big one, yeah, that one. He does it in the characteristically stoic way that made his generation infamous in Germany. The silence of the generation that survived the war absolutely infuriated their children and the presence of barely apologetic high ranking former soldiers and Nazis in positions of power in West Germany and Austria (and, uh, the UN) was unfortunately common (an easy source of propaganda victories for the East Germans who didn’t find violent racists in the Communist east often by studiously avoiding looking). If you think Millenials are disgusted with Boomers, check out the rage of the 1968 generation. The long standing public sympathy for the Red Army Faction, which evaporated with Schleyer’s execution, comes from its explicitly anti-fascist mission of the RAF (obviously that’s contested ground by the folks accused of being fascists). This is what Klemperer’s storyline is ultimately about: generational guilt and the universality of the trauma and exhaustion that results from being influenced and surrounded by evil.

I can hear y’all screaming. “Erin!,” you cry, “This is a movie about fucking witches. What’s all this history nonsense, talk to me about WITCHES and BLOOD and SPECTACLE, ffs.”

Ok, ok, ok. The other, ok the main, plot of Suspiria involves the arrival of another American dancer, Susie Bannion (another very good performance from Dakota Johnson), who arrives very conveniently the day after Patricia, either the victim of an awful ritual or a foolish young girl who got lost in terrorist plots aligned with the Red Army Faction (I didn’t waste your time, I promise), has disappeared. Susie’s awe of Madame Blanc (that would be the role Tilda Swinton is actually credited with and plays with graceful aplomb) and evidently intense desire to be a part of this troupe earns her an audition, which she nails and now we are off to the races. Susie burrows her way into troupe. Sara is her first contact with any of the dancers and so she tries to join Sara in finding out what happened to Patricia.

My day job is in theatre, opera, and dance. Not as much dance as I would like and I would not call myself an expert, but I have spent a lot of time with ballet companies and worked on a lot of showcases for modern dance and I have to say that I was very impressed by the authenticity of the rehearsal process, the quality of the movements developed by all of the actors, and the overall choreography of a film that seems very aware of a particular type of dance tradition in Germany (I know the barest amount of that tradition, mostly thanks to Wim Wender’s documentary about Pina Bausch). The choreography, credited to Damien Jalet (whose non-film credits are extraordinary), is earthy, vivid, and organic, perfectly suited to the Guadagnino’s version of these witches.

The witches themselves are ancient and speak often of the past and Madame Blanc is very clear that some of the most vibrant and important work the troupe did right after the war was in resisting the smug maleness of the violent fascists, as she offers an explanation for performing a particular dance, she essentially answers the unspoken question of “Why this dance, now?” (though at this point, we should understand that the performance of this dance has a secret, much purpose). That piece is called “Volk” and well holy shit is that a loaded term. “Volk” can be roughly translated as “people,” though in politics it is more like The People. Volkswagen is the People’s Car, for example, which is . . . not innocent, even if rinsed through years of camper vans, “Da da da,” and Fahrvergnügen it’s possible you managed to forget that Volkswagen was founded by Robert Ley, a Nazi war criminal, at Hitler’s behest. In the mouths of Nazis, fascists, and chauvinist nationalists, “Volk” (substitute expression appropriate to whatever language/culture combo applies) refers to a group of people bound by blood. “Volk,” and the adjective “völkisch” or “volkstümlich” were used by the Nazis to claim people and activities in the German past via a created (and false) mythology. Kagjanich and Guadagnino do not make you work very hard to make that connection in Suspiria: Dr Klemperer talks about the iconography of the Nazis as created mythology, a kind of shared mass delusion, in a meeting with Sara at his office. Nazis appropriated folk traditions, leather goods and gymnastics (loooooong story) and fairy tales, in an effort to make the old things, the “German things,” feel like Nazi things. What are these witches up to?

Guadagnino gives you plenty of reasons to worry about these witches. I mean, we have every reason to believe that they killed or tortured Patricia even before we find out that, yep, they tortured her. We witness with our own eyes what Susie does to Olga, a friend of Patricia’s who tries to leave the troupe. At first, we aren’t sure if Susie knows that her expressive movement is causing someone grievous bodily harm, though the movie definitely wants us to be less and less sure of that as story goes on. And we see the witches wield extremely wicked looking hooks while disposing of Olga’s shattered body among other nefarious activities. The witches seem like another existential threat along with the terrorists and the police out in the real world.

But, but, but, but . . .

Guadagnino quite clearly repudiates the völkisch fascist hype with the mythology of the witches, which reminds me of what CS Lewis might call old magic. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are also excellent examples, both excavate old stories and ancient rituals in order to remove the polite, musty, moralizing varnish such tales acquired over the years in various culture wars. The restore some of the wonder and terror the stories originally inspired. The Three Mothers the witches talk about and in whose name the use these ancient powers are Suspiriorum, Tenebraum, and Lachrymarum — Sighs, Darkness, and Tears, are part of a mythology that Dario Argento invented, but it feels like a similar project: the excavation and reclamation of “Volk” tales (they are Märchen in German, I know, don’t at me). In all instances, Pratchett, Gaiman, Argento, and Guadagnino, seek to shorten our distance from the origins of these stories and in the process help us get closer to the moral ambiguity and dramatic tension those stories seemed intended to inspire. In this reading, the witches aren’t aren’t evil, necessarily, or inherently, but, uh, not everything they do is particularly good for non-witches, which can look and feel like evil from the outside.

Guadagnino is not content for us to remain on the outside though: his film is a journey from outside the troupe, where we fear the obvious power and brutality of the witches to inside, where we begin to identify which of the witches (#SorryNotSorry) is far more willing to cruelly inflict pain than the others, a tense, dramatic, and occasionally traumatic experience. We know factions exist right away because a vote is taken near the beginning of the film that affirms someone named Mother Markos (who we don’t see for some time) as leader of the coven over Madame Blanc; it is only later that we begin to understand what each side of that vote wants. Despite knowing the brutality that Blanc is capable of — Blanc 100% knew what what Susie’s dance did to Olga, she made it possible for to Susie do it even — Blanc becomes increasingly more sympathetic as we get more and more acquainted with the witches and what Susie is capable of.

The phantasmagoric and gory center of this film is the ritual, a sacrificial act whose contours we are given slowly throughout the film. Madame Blanc’s grooming of Susie seems originally intended to make her suitable to participate in the ritual. As Blanc and Susie’s relationship develops, Madame Blanc comes to dread submitting Susie to the ritual. At one point, Madame Blanc sits with Susie in her bedroom, trying to console her, but Susie completely turns the tables on Blanc with a simple question “Why is everybody so ready to think the worst is over?” This is a disturbingly prescient sentiment from Susie, who has not been told the details of the ritual, but it is also, from my seat in the audience, disturbingly not about whatever the witches have planned for Susie. It’s not hard to see and feel, the modern echoes of that sentiment and to conclude that the filmmakers want us to be scared of things that are far more real that witches. Guadagnino and Kajganich create many multi-faceted connections between our world and Suspiria and October 1977 and the Holocaust and the world engulfed in war. For all of our concern for how bad things look right now, which is considerable, history has much to tell us of how much worse it can get. Suspiria puts in perspective the possible journeys ahead of us and many of those journeys are very, very bad and many of them HAVE ALREADY HAPPENED. Suspiria is a film embedded in the history of “the worst” and it is not witches torturing dancers for eternal youth.

I’m going to talk about the details of the ritual a bit now, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that I am spoiling this scene, which is, to say the least, I mean the bare ass minimum, an intense sonic and visual experience. The few plot and thematic details I’m about to touch don’t on even come close to doing it justice. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you, etc, etc, etc.

The ritual is, at its root a sacrifice of a carefully selected victim, a selection process that has gone awry several times before Susie’s arrival. When the ritual is about to begin we learn the specific stakes that Markos and Madame Blanc are willing to commit to as well as the intended purpose of the ritual, which reveals Markos’ power mongering in its grubby entirety including her utter disdain for dance as a thing unto itself. Blanc loves dance, cherishes it as part and parcel of their work in the coven. Markos, who is hideous, her form completely covered in sores and abscesses, does not relate to beauty in that way any longer and wants only to resume the position of power she held when she was beautiful. She believes that murdering Susie in the ritual will enable that and so when Blanc hesitates at the last, not convinced of that necessity, Markos, lost in the tantalizing closeness of a return to power slashes Blanc’s throat. And then she turns to Susie and administers a blood oath: “Death to other mothers.”

But it turns out that Susie, who we learn was cast out of her Mennonite house for being born of the devil, something we were meant to think of as hyperbolic until right the fuck now, is well, actually that mother, Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. Markos had been claiming the power of the mother of sighs without consequence for so long that she took it for granted that the true mother was not out there or that she was entitled to that mantle anyway. Much to Markos’ chagrin and at the cost of her life, when the real Mother of Sighs presents herself and manifests her power, she obliterates all pretensions about her and all those who used her story and power for their own ends. Like, literally. Like I said, this scene is bonkers, you really do have to see it.

This last reveal of an unvarnished will to power, and its consequences, show that Madame Blanc’s spiritual understanding of dance as resistance was correct and connected to the anti-fascist work happening in Dr. Klemperer’s side of the film. The witch dance company’s public work is a repudiation of the pale, false stories the Nazis told about the Volk and a foreshadowing of the more private performance of power we get in the finale, where Madame Markos, the cynical pretender to power, is thoroughly defeated by the power she had abused. This, to me, is why Guadagnino needs these dancers to be witches, and vice-versa. They need to be grounded in the history of the body, the resistance of violence applied to female bodies in an attempt to remove their inherent, mystical power. The assertion of that power, literally and symbolically, is restorative. This cleansing ritual is a repudiation of the patriarchy and all those infected by repressive violence.

That might sound grandiose, but the final scene of this film is not some falling action from the ritual: it’s a scene between Mother Suspiriorum (Dakota Johnson plays her with such confident authority, it’s like she is literally a different person) gives Klemperer the gift of the probably true story about what happened to his wife (it’s plausible at least), a mystery that has taunted him since the war ended, just before bestowing on him an act of greater mercy given his part in the ritual: she wipes all memory of the coven, especially what they did, from him. “We need guilt and shame . . . but not yours.” The film ends in the modern world with a faded memento of the love shared by Klemperer and his wife in their Kleingarten, now enjoyed by other young lovers.

Now, putting on my reviewer hat while wearing my critic name tag, there are a lot of questions of how successfully Guadagnino executes all of these power moves, associating himself with the stylistic excess of horror as well as wrestling with the complex evocations of fascist history. For many reviewers and critics with a memory of Argento’s film, the answer is no, it’s not as successful a stylistic and sensory experience. I have not seen Argento’s film, so IDK. I think Guadagnino is doing so much cultural work, that he can’t make a movie ruthlessly dedicated to genre and style, and I think that’s totes ok, but . . . your mileage may vary. I find it compelling. I also have an MA in Germanic Studies and Berlin is my favorite city in the world. Suspiria is extremely my shit.

Guadagnino’s commentary on female power is certainly dull enough to call into question that notion that Suspiria is a feminist film, I would concede that point immediately and suggest it is not. The eruptions of colors and shapes associated with the female body in the lurid ritual are pretty standard, if like AMPED, for how dudes have represented feminine power rooted in female bodies for awhile. They were basic enough that I couldn’t help but wonder what this scene would have looked like, what Suspiria could have been, if it was by women, as well as about them.

There is something in the air out in the world today, where trauma and injustice are practiced so openly and globally, that makes horror a very effective genre for exploring the fractured, anxious state of us as humans in the world. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria explores the trauma of our world by embedding his fable in a historical past which holds terrifying prospects for our future, but he also doesn’t neglect the possibility that it could get better, that evil can be punished. It’s not clear that good won with all those witches in it who might not care if you survive. Best not to dwell on that part too much. It really is a beautiful Kleingarten.

Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked 

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Annie and Duncan live in a sleepy coastal English town (not, uh, that one). Annie, played with glorious and disarming charm by Rose Byrne, struggles to make sense of her life with her long time boyfriend Duncan, an opinionated asshole made tolerable by Chris O’Dowd’s comedic charm. Duncan isn’t doing much beyond obsessing over Tucker Crowe, a one album wonder of the indie rock circuit circa 1993. That one album is called Juliet. We get ample proof of Duncan's intense focus on Crowe and Juliet in the web video he produced that opens the film. 

One day, a stripped down for spare parts version of that album called, you’ll totally never guess, ok, I’ll tell you, it’s Juliet, Naked, ok, you guessed my bad, arrives in the mail. When Annie posts a less than appreciative take on his vanished indie rocker idol’s latest, Duncan takes it . . . terribly, it’s safe to say. In the middle of Annie and Duncan’s troubles, none other than Tucker Crowe reaches out to Annie. Tucker is played by Ethan Hawke in a grunged out version of his charismatic Jesse, from Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy (also featuring the stunning work of Julie Delpy, I have to say). As it happens, Tucker takes a similarly dim view of that album. What follows is . . . well, it’s not exactly the stuff of a Harlequin romance or a Spanish soap opera. Juliet, Naked, the movie, not the album, may not be a breathless romance, but it is a charming exploration of the sense of connection that can be made between two souls who have done little more than drift toward the shores of middle age.

One of the many rewarding aspects of Juliet, Naked, directed by Jesse Peretz, written by Evgenia Peretz and husband and wife team Jim Murray and Tamara Jenkins, is how it works through the pervasive layering and mythologizing of the past that clutter our minds and paralyze us moving forward, both personally and as a culture. Don’t get me wrong, Juliet, Naked is not a searing, dense analysis of our tortured relationship with the myths we create for ourselves and force on others, but rather a gentle thought experiment along similar lines, focusing on what it would be like for two people who become aware of how caged they feel by the past, in complementary ways, to find each other where we regularly get to laugh with them and very rarely at them. 

The wonderful casting of Byrne and Hawke makes the interactions between Tucker and Annie a genuine pleasure to watch. There is a groundedness to their resigned truth telling as they share emails about disappointment in their own lives with one another. I also experienced a heartfelt sense of recognition at the endorphin high Annie and Tucker get during the early stages of their digital correspondence, before they meet IRL. It’s a delightfully real touch in a film that occasionally has to bend over backwards to get the plot going. The quiet joy of this film for me is how lived these characters feel, like people and not bundles of rom-com tropes. It’s a film full of shaggy moments that have few plot machinations but lots of personal stakes, like the scenes in the hospital after Tucker suffers a heart attack, nearly all of Annie’s time with Tucker’s young son Jackson, and their walks along the beach. Most of the scenes are unforced and unhurried, unbothered by plot, even the act of introducing Duncan to his idol doesn’t result in painfully awkward romantic hijinks and crossed wires. While Ethan Hawke is a known quantity in this mode, at least to me, I was blown away by how well Rose Byrne matches his emotional gait in their scenes together and just in general how wonderfully effective she is at conveying desire and exasperation and sadness and determination, sometimes all at once.

Juliet, Naked operates, almost inevitably, in the shadow of that other Nick Hornby adaptation, the cult classic, High Fidelity. John Cusack’s Rob is, like O’Dowd’s Duncan, an abrasive obsessive whose condescension is monumentally tempered by the self-effacing charisma and sense of humor of the actor playing the role. High Fidelity focuses on reuniting Rob with his girlfriend Laura amidst Rob’s navel gazing mid-life crisis and that really worked . . . in 2000. But now? In the #MeToo era, it would actually feel weird to give too many shits about Duncan, yet another opinionated, thoughtless middle-aged douche, who consumes mountains of emotional energy and is more than willing to crush and/or ignore the opinions of others, as we get vividly portrayed for us during one particularly disastrous dinner scene. Duncan might be salvageable, as Rob was, but I wouldn’t wish that task on any real-life Annie, so it’s quite refreshing that the cinematic Annie does not feel burdened with that task either. Nor is she the emotional pack-mule for Tucker and his many many issues. The film’s sympathies are firmly with Annie, with helping her unearth what she wants out of life and why her current life is wrong for her and that is as it should be.

If you are looking for an intricate comic tale of a fraught three-headed relationship, Juliet, Naked will disappoint. That would be a shame. The film is far more focused on its characters than its plot and if you like spending time with two people who are trying to work out how to be their best selves after years of failing to do that, Juliet, Naked will be an enjoyable experience, a modern rom-com for the laid back and the introspective, existential question types. It’s a bloody miracle it made it to the big screen at all, though I suspect many will only discover this movie as it filters down to the small screens where people’s lives are closer to the pace of this delightful film. I mean, it’ll be worth it if you don’t wait that long, but hit me up when you do.

Juliet, Naked is 105 minutes long and rated R. It’s out wide now, check your local listings.