The language in Luca Guadagninoâs remake of the horror film âSuspiriaâ goes beyond words. His witches speak in movement.
In one scene, a dancer â Susie (Dakota Johnson) â performs in a studio, expelling sharp, sudden breaths as she rises and falls, her arms shooting out like daggers. Another dancer, older and worn down, finds herself locked in a mirrored room; she twitches and contorts as she slams into walls and onto the floor to the sound of her own snapping bones. They protrude through her flesh like splitting seams.
Whatâs stunning about the scene isnât just the violence (though that is shocking), but how Susieâs movements control the other dancer, and how the energy sweeping through Susieâs body is palpably wild and free.
The scene also serves as a sly metaphor for what happens when an aging dancer is confronted with a younger, fresher version of herself. There may not be broken bones, but the result can feel just as violent. âIn one room, you see the force of life,â the filmâs choreographer, Damien Jalet, said in an interview. âAnd in the other it is the force of destruction.â
âSuspiriaâ â as over-the-top as it is â is different. Most dance films, like âCenter Stageâ and âBlack Swan,â are riddled with stereotypes. Finally, here is a film that gets dance right.
In the original âSuspiria,â Dario Argentoâs 1977 cult classic, a ballet academy is home to a coven of witches. But in Mr. Guadagninoâs version, set that same year in divided Cold War Berlin, the dancers gracing the screen arenât ballerinas; theyâre neither wispy nor ethereal. In Mr. Guadagninoâs view, that witchy power is better unleashed through modern dance.
âDario making it classical ballet was a big mistake, a misstep,â Mr. Guadagnino said. âIf you are a witch, you are on the fringe. You are not at the center. These are women that donât go for the establishment â they go for what is on the border of the establishment. I thought it was more important that they were going to be radical artists.â
Martha Graham is one of the dance artists haunting this film, along with two German choreographers: the expressionist Mary Wigman (1886-1973) â aptly, one her most famous works is âWitch Danceâ â and Pina Bausch, who created dense, extravagant works of dance-theater. Tilda Swinton, as Madame Blanc, the artistic director of the fictional Helena Markos Dance Company, draws on all three.
Slim as a feather, with hair cascading down her back and a cigarette perpetually wedged between her slender fingers, Madame Blanc snaps at dancers but is somehow â and this is one of many realistic touches in the film â both sharp and maternal. âYou donât look better,â she tells Susie at one point. âOr are you this pale all the time?â
She can also echo Graham, without being a parody of her, when she talks about the power of movement: âItâs a series of energetic shapes written in the air like words forming sentences. Like poems. Like prayers.â
How did Mr. Guadagnino, the director responsible for the coming-of-age film âCall Me by Your Name,â become so enamored of dance? When he was 15, a couple of years after first he saw âSuspiria,â he attended a performance of âPalermo Palermo,â by Bauschâs Tanztheater Wuppertal.
He loved it so much he saw it twice: âI felt, Why is it that I am watching something that is nonverbal and Iâm understanding everything?â He realized then, he said, that narrative could be transmitted without words.
In âSuspiria,â dance is used as a tool to express the power of the witches. âItâs not this kind of marketing idea of the Amazonian world of women who have power,â Mr. Guadagnino said. âItâs more about, what is at the center of a world of sacrifice, discipline and the bending of bodies?â
To capture the world as authentically as possible, David Kajganich immersed himself in dance history while writing the screenplay. As part of his research, he even shadowed the German choreographer Sasha Waltz. âIt was instrumental in understanding how one talks about dance on a casual level,â he said.
In the film, Madame Blanc says: âThere are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.â
Mr. Kajganich wrote that line in response to a quotation by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who in 1937 said, âDance must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy.â
âSuspiriaâ also has ties to this period. The Markos Companyâs signature dance, âVolk,â was created in the â40s. A strident work with Ms. Johnson as its centerpiece, âVolkâ relies on the power of the collective â hinting at the rise of fascism â as the dancers play off one anotherâs breath like a pulsating organism. The idea of gravity is there, too; they surrender themselves and their bodies to a certain fate: Itâs as if there were a gravitational pull that they canât resist.
The movement language of the witches dates to 2013 when, at the Louvre, Mr. Jalet, a French-Belgian contemporary choreographer, staged the trio âLes MÃ©dusÃ©es,â inspired by the original âSuspiria.â In the new version, âVolkâ is an expanded version of âLes MÃ©dusÃ©es.â
ââVolkâ is so omnipresent in the film, because they keep on rehearsing it, and they talk a lot about it,â Mr. Jalet said. âIt was created in the â40s, but still is performed in the â70s. Thatâs a tricky one.â
In other words, Mr. Jalet didnât want to get stuck in trying to recreate a historical piece. âIt couldnât be too flowy,â he said. âAt the same time, I wanted to keep a kind of freedom with it.â
The structure of âVolkâ is based on a pentagram or two opposing stars. âIt also looked a little bit like a spiderâs web on which the dancers are moving through kind of a hidden network,â Mr. Jalet said. âSo they canât really escape.â
He made a discovery with Ms. Johnson, who trained for a year before shooting began with Mary Helen Bowers, who worked with Natalie Portman on âBlack Swan.â Her shoulder blades are naturally loose. Very loose.
âSomehow itâs disturbing to watch when sheâs doing it,â Mr. Jalet said. âShe really transforms â itâs beautiful because it really came from her. It is really showing her.â
Ms. Johnson, who was on a dance team in her early teens â âI was not very good,â she stressed â had no idea that her shoulder blades were so flexible. âI would do a lot of warm-ups to get my back really loose and warm so that we could exaggerate it even more,â she said, âand make it look like an animal.â
And not unlike her character, Ms. Johnson discovered, through dance, a power she didnât have before. âI feel far more connected to my body,â she said. âI learned that from the dancers.â
âThe life of a dancer now is not easy,â she added. âItâs not luxurious. Itâs long hours. Itâs painful. But moving is their life. It was such an extraordinary thing for me, as a young woman, to see: women living so comfortably and confidently and gratefully in their bodies. I wish that that were something I could impart onto every young woman in the world.â