The Stendhal Syndrome Review
Warning: In attempting to analyze this difficult film, I have had to reveal a number of spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
In 1996, Dario Argento polarized his fans with his 13th film, La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome). Some dismissed it as clumsy, lazy, or even worse, faceless filmmaking. Others, however, adored it, proclaiming it a classic and a masterpiece. I tend to lean towards the latter viewpoint. While it is not a perfect movie, it is an engaging piece of filmmaking that alternates between the harrowing and the beautiful, and offers us an insight into a rarely-seen part of Argento’s psyche.
Anna Manni (played by the director’s own daughter, Asia Argento) is a junior detective in Rome’s anti-rape unit. One day she receives a tip-off that a particularly vicious man, who has raped a number of women and also killed the last two, is in an art museum in Florence. Whilst there, Anna suffers an attack from a rare affliction called the Stendhal Syndrome, which causes sufferers to hallucinate when confronted by works of art. After regaining consciousness, Anna realizes that she has no idea who she is or what she is doing. She is helped by a charismatic man named Alfredo, who is in fact the rapist she was searching for. After following her back to her hotel room, her corners her and brutally rapes her. She manages to escape from Alfredo’s clutches, and attempts to get some normality back into her life, but is haunted by the fact that Alfredo didn’t kill her and is still at large somewhere.
The first half of the film plays out as a relatively conventional thriller, albeit with all the usual idiosyncrasies associated with Argento. About half-way through, though, the film takes a completely unexpected turn, when Anna kills Alfredo. Although she still believes him to be alive somewhere, it is perfectly clear that no-one could have survived the injuries he sustained. It is at this point more than anywhere else that nothing is what it seems, as the film explores Anna’s psyche and the impact of the horrors she endured.
Considering that Argento is frequently (and wrongly) labelled a misogynist, The Stendhal Syndrome has a surprisingly feminist viewpoint. Here, he does something he has never done before, and that is to make us care about the character of Anna. Whereas most Argento characters are merely ciphers, cardboard cut-outs designed to support the plot and onscreen mayhem, Anna is a fully rounded, flawed and believable character. The image of her hacking off her hair with a pair of surgical scissors after her first rape is touching and creates a level of empathy that Argento rarely indulges in. It is certainly true that, of all his films, the three featuring his daughter have been the ones that have come closest to creating a true level of sympathy between character and audience. This is arguably the only one of Argento’s movies to actually focus on the effect of violence rather than the act of violence itself. (The vast majority of the on-screen violence is subdued and lacking in glamour.)
This is the second of three movies in which Argento used his daughter as an actor, and it is definitely the most satisfying of the three. While Asia Argento’s acting abilities seem to divide critics almost as much as her father’s directing, it is undeniable that she tackles an extremely difficult role here and for the most part does extremely well. It is possible to see the character of Anna as something of a continuation or re-interpretation of Aura, the anorexic girl she played in Trauma. Indeed, as far as character studies go, The Stendhal Syndrome is undoubtedly the superior of the two.
A lot has been made of the fact that Argento directed his own daughter in two rather brutal rape scenes. One reviewer, who I am not going to name, attempted to imply some sort of Freudian perversion going on between father and daughter, and went so far as to question what kind of a father would put his own daughter in a film such as this. My response to this is to ask if it would have been fine if he had put someone else’s daughter in it. At the very least, Argento and his daughter clearly have a mutual understanding of the material and have a professional enough working relationship that they are able to tackle subject matter such as this together. In the behind the scenes footage, the two come across as light-hearted and on good terms with each other (at least until Asia fled to Hollywood to star in brainless nonsense like xXx, that is), showing that they are able to separate movies from real life.
Special mention must also be given to Thomas Krestchmann, who portrays Alfredo as a repulsively sadistic, bizarre and completely remorseless villain. Alfredo is not so much a character as he is an entity. In a way, he embodies evil, violence and everything wrong with society, and his complete lack of concern (or even understanding) for the horrors he inflicts on Anna makes her revenge against him all the more satisfying. The rest of the characters (and their respective actors) are the typical Argento ciphers, and at the end of the day are not particularly important. The show definitely belongs to Asia Argento and Thomas Krestchmann, and the other actors are merely window-dressing.
A lot of people have pointed out that Anna recovers from the Stendhal Syndrome around half-way through the film and then never mentions it again. In effect, it seems as if the hallucinations that she prevously suffered from suddenly become irrelevant. One interpretation I find quite credible is that it is at this point that, far from being cured, she is completely overcome by the syndrome and everything on-screen from then on is her hallucinations. My theory is this that Alfredo is a figment of Anna’s imagination and a manifestation of the Stendhal Syndrome. It is interesting that she claims to have stopped suffering from the syndrome after she kills him, while at the same time she also starts wearing a wig that is the same colour as Alfredo’s hair (and, as is later revealed, continues to carry out his “work”). There are a number of flaws with this theory (someone clearly raped and murdered the previous victims, unless they too are figments of Anna’s imagination), but this is the way Argento works: you can’t simply dissect one of his films and attempt to rationalize it.
People expecting another Suspiria or Profondo Rosso, or indeed Phenomena, will probably be surprised by The Stendhal Syndrome’s visuals. Argento here avoids the crazy colour schemes and unusual camera angles that he so lavishly applied to his movies from the late 70s to mid 80s, going for a more drab, conventional look. That said, Giuseppe Rotunno’s photography is perfectly servicable and at the end of the day is probably more fitting for a movie of this nature than the baroque visual style of Argento’s earlier works. The score, by Ennio Morricone, a frequent Argento collaborator, is deceptively simple but extremely haunting, coming in at all the right moments to add to the atmosphere and emotions.
Apparently, this was the first Italian film to feature CGI, and one has to question why it was included at all. On three or four occasions, Argento sees fit to throw in some extremely primitive computer graphics, and most of the time their inclusion seems completely ancillary. One particularly embarassing shot takes place inside Anna’s body and shows some pills travelling down her throat. Argento has always been a proponent of new technology (he helped pioneer the luma-crane in Tenebre), but I can’t help feeling that, on this occasion, the inclusion of these “innovations” hurts the film overall.
I feel that a lot of people will probably end up being put off by the pacing of this film. It is slow and deliberate, and in its more serene moments it comes across more as a series of vignettes depicting Anna’s life than as a continuous story. The continual changes of time and place are quite disconcerting, and can be seen as an evolution of the sudden changes in camera angle and subjectivity Argento made heavy use of during his most productive period.
The Stendhal Syndrome is odd, even by Dario Argento’s decidedly warped standards. While not as aesthetically baroque as his earlier works, this is a genuinely deep and philosophical movie that will probably not provide immediate satisfaction. I have a feeling that this is the sort of movie that hardcore Argento fans will dislike as much as the neophytes, but it is a testament to Argento’s integrity as an auteur that he is willing to branch out in new directions, even after being in the business for more than 30 years. The film has gained something of an unsavoury reputation, due in part to the popular misconception that Argento is a misogynistic gore-fiend, and certainly not helped by the fact that in the US it was released by Troma, a company that specializes in the distribution of cheap schlock. In reality, the film is nothing like this at all. It is a poignant, mesmerizing and deeply disturbing journey into the mind of a unbalanced young woman that, while not perfect, is vastly superior to the majority of the supposed “thrillers” that Hollywood insists on churning out.
Note: This 2-disc release includes two versions of The Stendhal Syndrome: the director-approved 114-minute Italian cut (contained on disc 1), and the shorter international English cut (contained on disc 2), which omits 74 seconds’ worth of material. The missing material takes the form of two isolated scenes, one involving Anna talking on the phone to the husband of one of the murdered women, and the other featuring Anna meeting her dead lover’s mother at the airport. Quite why these scenes were removed is completely baffling, but it is nice to have both versions of the film contained in one package.
Addendum: Believe it or not, the Stendhal Syndrome is a real affliction. You can read more about it here.
This release of The Stendhal Syndrome presents the film in a 16x9-enhanced aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The packaging claims that the presentation is in the original ratio of 1.66:1, but as a result of the 1.78:1 formatting, the image is slightly cropped at the top and bottom.
Having previously owned the appalling Dutch Film Works DVD of the film, this new Medusa transfer is like a breath of fresh air. The colours are vivid, with the bright red blood shining out clearly. The Dutch Film Works transfer, by contrast, looks like it is caked with a layer of snot, and well it might, as it was in fact sourced from a VHS tape.
There are no obvious problems with compression. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the level of detail present. The image has been filtered quite severely. This is clear from the erratic, frozen grain patterns that appear, and also by the lack of fine detail. To make matters worse, the image has been edge enhanced. This is a let-down from Medusa, considering that they previously released Argento’s Il Fantasma Dell’Opera completely unfiltered, demonstrating an exceptional level of detail. While the detail present here is certainly an improvement over the DFW DVD, it is not quite everything I was hoping for.
The Italian cut includes Italian audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 and a remix in 5.1, whereas the English cut features an English Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Both versions include optional English and Italian subtitles.
I gave up listening to the Italian 5.1 track pretty quickly, partly because I consider it wrong to remix mono or stereo into 5.1 to appease the idiotic “everything must be in surround sound” crowd, but also because it has a bizarre “echo” effect throughout. The 2.0 mix is perfectly crisp and clear with no distortion, and it provides a decent amount of “oomph” when it needs to.
It is worth pointing out that, although most of the actors are in fact speaking in English, the film was post-dubbed, like virtually all of Argento’s films. Asia Argento reportedly went ballistic when she heard the voice her character had been given in the English dub, and listening to it, it’s not too hard to see why. The voice doesn’t suit her and the voice actor is completely unable to achieve the kind of emotional depth required for the role. For the Italian dub, Asia provided her own voice, and although the lip movements don’t match up to the dialogue, I consider the Italian dub preferable to the English one.
Both discs feature identical menus, with some minimal background animation and score music. The menus are reasonably easy to use, although PC-DVD users will undoubtedly be annoyed to learn that, rather than clicking on the actual text for menu choices, you must point the cursor to an area to the right of the text.
The cover art is pretty bog-standard: nothing to write home about. The two discs are housed in one of those amaray cases that has a spindle on each facing side. There is a small four-page booklet inside with chapter listings, technical specs and a list of special features. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the case, it sits loose inside.
The majority of the extras, apart from the cast and crew lists, are found on the second disc. All the extras are presented in non-anamorphic 1.33:1.
Please note that I do not speak a word of Italian, so my evaluation of these extras is based almost entirely on guess-work.
Cast and crew - You know the score by now. This is basically just a list of the principal cast and crew and what their roles were.
Interview with Asia Argento - Running at 3:27, this interview was clearly conducted on the set of the film, and features Asia talking to a reporter.
Interview with Dario Argento - A 4:16 interview conducted in the same fashion as the Asia interview.
Film set featurette - Clocking in at a whopping 34:55, this featurette is comprised of behind the scenes footage and interviews with some of the major players, including Dario and Asia Argento, director of photograpphy Giuseppe Rotunno and actor Marco Leonardi. Although the interviews are quite lengthy and are completely incomprehensible to me, there is still a lot to be gained from watching it, since it shows in considerable detail the amount of preparation that goes into setting up even a simple scene. It's also worth watching to hear small segments of the original on-set English dialogue.
While not the greatest DVD release ever, this is definitely the most satisfying presentation of the movie so far, and fans will be pleased with the inclusion of both the full-length Italian version and the cut English release, if only so they can theorize as to who in their right mind would remove the two scenes in question. Your mileage with this film is going to vary, and liking Argento’s other works does not immediately mean that you are going to enjoy this one. It is a film that gives no easy answers and strays from Argento’s previous giallo and supernatural territories. That said, if you can sit down to watch it with an open mind, and are willing to look past its oddities, The Stendhal Syndrome might just be a rewarding experience and a much-needed break from the rules of Hollywood thrillers.