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London Film Festival 2018: Suspiria, Dovlatov

Gala Moody, Mia Goth and Dakota Johnson in Suspiria

Dario Argento's classics, though popular in their time, have only become even more so in times since - stylistic curiosities in a panoply of ways, their idiosyncratic significance deepens as each year passes, bringing with them the same attempts to do the same things within the horror genre. That filmmakers have largely steered clear of aping Argento, save the occasional nod to his influence, has surely been wise on their part; that Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich approach an Argento remake similarly is wise on theirs too. What results in their modern-day Suspiria (set, however, in 1977, when Argento's contemporary-set film was released) may not be quite the same curio with quite the same idiosyncratic imprint, and may thus never mature within the broad cinematic lexicon as his Suspiria has, but it's superb horror filmmaking with bracing immediacy and artistic flair regardless.

In fact, though Guadagnino never attempts anything as daring as Argento did over 40 years ago, his restraint is only restraint at all in direct comparison, and actually engenders a finer work overall. Guadaganino has only ever been an artist concerned with style and emotion, not with insisting upon his films resonating beyond their runtime - a quality that has, ironically, guaranteed their capacity to do just that, at best. Suspiria's emotional quotient is fairly low, enough to qualify it as an oversight and one of the film's few though notable distinct flaws, but its style is ostentatious and glorious. Such profound ugliness, such a sense of coldness searing through every frame, such magnificent technical design, and such glee that Guadagnino takes in rendering this all into a single, singular statement on nothing more than what he can achieve with material that many once considered untouchable. It's slow and sensual where Argento's original was fleet and jagged, beige and taupe compared to that original's blood reds and neons, thematically adventurous where it was content to get on with its gory deeds and be done with it (and, in this regard, perhaps fared better). In fact, this may be one of the year's most adventurous titles - it's unabashedly uncommercial, and disturbing in ways likely to turn many viewers off entirely, yet also to bore those whose fealty to Argento may make warming to such a chilly, unpleasant movie an impossible task.

Milan Maric in Dovlatov

You can feel that cold radiate from Aleksey German's Dovlatov too. German's second feature since the death of his father feels distinctly informed by his passing, now well over five years ago - the celebrated author Sergei Dovlatov was of German Sr.'s generation, and was similarly underappreciated in his lifetime. One imagines German Jr. growing up under Soviet rule with an artist father, albeit some years later than Dovlatov's daughter, shown here in the narrative's six-day snapshot of a nation undergoing regressive reforms, freedom represented by nothing beyond the expressions of this nation's artists. Those expressions are being actively curtailed at every level, the pressures of oppression grinding the USSR's more liberally-inclined citizens into either dense wells of emotion or hollow shells, ready either to crack or to yield.

Jr. has inherited Sr.'s directorial techniques wholesale, though with a ponderousness that balances the humour (still wholly present), though has little bearing on the cumulative artistic effect. Scenes are long and languid, captured in long takes with lazy edits, crossing into and out of conversations in which voice upon voice is heard yet communication is rarely observed. Occasional metaphorical devices lumber in, reminders of our status as figures from the present looking back upon a past which only now can we interpret in full. This is an exquisitely-realised past - cinematographer Lukasz Zal does subtly genius work, and production / costume designer Elena Okopnaya confirms herself yet again as one of international cinema's foremost stylists. The breadth of their vision serves as splendid contrast to the intimacy of German's purview and the interiority of Milan Maric's central performance, also accenting the cultural context in which Dovlatov's slight, meandering plot situates itself. It's all pretty po-faced, even when encountering comedy, but isn't this how any of us would approach such circumstances ourselves? That may repel some viewers, becoming increasingly tired by a movie that seems, at times, to repel conventions of accessible cinema almost altogether, but this is masterly cinema all the same.

Suspiria and Dovlatov both screen at the London Film Festival, running until the 21st of October.

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