This one is really strange and profane and much more interested in style than substance. Lots of images flashing across the screen, some of them making sense in the context of the narrative, others not so clear. The viewer is left to collect the pieces of the puzzle and attempt to make a coherent picture, but what if some of the pieces just don’t fit?
It’s 1977. The Baader-Meinhof terrorist group is active in Germany, and has taken credit for hijacking a passenger plane, which is being bartered for the release of prisoners. There are demonstrations in the streets. Susie (Dakota Johnson) is an American girl who travels to Berlin on her own, because she wants to be part of an (in)famous dance troupe, headed by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She literally has to walk through the rioters in order to make her way to the dance studio. They are somewhat taken back by her audacity in assuming she would be given an immediate audition, but that is exactly what happens because one of the troupe members has just suddenly departed, leaving them in the lurch for another dancer. And Susie whoever-she-is proves herself to be just the expressive, limber stylist they want and need. This is modern dance, and we don’t need gracefully flowing ballet. But the moves are so rigorous and violent they more resemble Tae-Kwan-Do on steroids. That turns out to be significant, because this group does, in fact, deal in violence, but in ways that appear to be some sort of witchcraft. Yes, what we have here is a coven, cleverly disguised as an all-female modern dance troupe. We’re not sure if all the dancers are in on the secret rites and the clandestine entrances, but the leaders definitely are. And when they get together, they get more mischievous. And more sinister.
One of the dancers affected by the sorcery manages to find a therapist who will listen to her regarding the strange goings-on there. Dr. Josef Klemperer (yes, also played by Tilda Swinton, and quite convincingly) has taken copious notes of these sessions, and he becomes so alarmed he calls the police, but when the detectives arrive they are….well, we’ll say bewitched. Not to mention humiliated, but then, their memories of that were conveniently erased---another useful witch’s spell.
No, there are no old crones dressed in black stirring over a boiling cauldron. But this coven is definitely into the aggressive, whirling-dervish dancing, and of course, removing any inconvenient evidence of old sacrificial rites. There’s a brief mention that this “religion” predates all others, a debatable claim, but then, they also inform us that the Amish were a split off from the Mennonites, and then they tell us that the Third Reich was a kind of religion, with its own rites and worship forms. Hmmm. We’re also not very sure what Dr. Klemperer had to do with the Nazis, but somehow he’s still grieving over how he and his beloved wife got separated during the War, and he’s still waiting for her to return.
Yes, the the rest of us are still waiting for this movie to make any real sense, other than to establish that this mysterious Susie is actually the new chief witch in town, and communicating telepathically is just a parlor trick compared to her voodoo-like ability to inflict pain on an adversary from a distance.
Very strange. No one to root for here. Certainly no romance. A lot of images of nudity and violence thrown out on the screen for the viewer to puzzle over, but what if the pieces don’t really fit, and that’s part of the intrinsic irony?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association