The Stendhal Syndrome Review
"It was the paintings, wasn't it? Works of art... have power over us. Great works of art have great power." - Alfredo Grossi
The extent to which Dario Argento's films are continually being reappraised is quite fascinating. While many of his movies from the last two decades have now been elevated to classic or near-classic status, he has not released a film that has been the subject of instantaneous near-universal fan approval since Tenebre in 1982; yet, today, people view the likes of Phenomena and Opera in a completely different light from how they were received at the time of their original release, and even the much-maligned The Phantom of the Opera has gained a handful of supporters (or should that be apologists?). When The Stendhal Syndrome was released in 1996, it was almost unanimously panned, with critics drawing attention to its limp screenplay, unconvincing whodunit and decidedly sedated cinematography. Even today, many pass it off as a failure, with critics describing it as everything from "dull and lethargic" to Argento's "most misogynistic movie to date". However, in my opinion, The Stendhal Syndrome is the best film Argento has made since his golden age came to an end with Opera in 1987 - a genuinely mature piece of filmmaking that paints a deeply disturbing portrait of a tortured mind. Critics be damned: this film is close to a masterpiece.
A raven-haired young woman strides purposefully through the streets of Florence, ignoring various statues that seem to stare down at her and the hordes of tourists heading which way and that. Her attention is entirely focused on her destination, the prestigious Uffizi gallery. Once inside, she treads from room to room, moving with the determination of a woman on a mission. As her eyes take in the various works of art adorning the walls and ceilings, however, she becomes increasingly ill at ease, sounds corresponding to the various scenes depicted in them seeming to emanate from them, filling her head. Eventually, confronted by Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus, her breathing intensifies as the water in the painting seems to take on a sense of depth and spread out to engulf her. She collapses, and finds herself floating underwater. (At which point a giant fish approaches her and kisses her on the lips.)
So begins Argento's thirteenth feature film. Put into production in late 1995, it saw the director returning to his native Italy after the disastrous experience of shooting the much-maligned Trauma in Minneapolis. Having bowed to producer pressure on the previous film, much to its detriment, Argento was determined to have it his own way this time around and craft the sort of film he wanted to make, rather than attempt to second-guess his audience or pander to distributors' concerns. The result is a bold and provocative outing that seems intent on confounding viewers' expectations at every turn, a rejection of the
The plot sees a police inspector on Rome's anti-rape squad, Anna Manni (Asia Argento) heading to Florence on the trail of a sadistic rapist who has begun to kill his victims. Acting on a tip-off, she turns up at the Uffizi gallery, where she is overwhelmed by the various paintings on display, causing her to collapse and come to with no memory of her identity or mission: Anna suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, a disorder that causes faintness and hallucinations when confronted by great works of art. Taking advantage of her vulnerable state, her prey, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Krestchmann), follows her to her hotel room and then violently rapes her. She manages to escape while he is in the process of violating and killing another woman, but is unable to put her ordeal behind her. Slowly, her mind begins to unravel, and she feels sure that Alfredo has left her alive for a reason.
This film is fascinating because it shows us what we usually don't see in Argento's films: the making of a maniac. The Stendhal Syndrome could easily be argued to be an origin story: it is a film of two distinct halves, the first concentrating on rape and psychological torture of Anna by Alfredo, and the second, after she turns the tables on her attacker and kills him, showing the world through her eyes as she sublimates his personality into her own and begins her own campaign of destruction. All of Argento's female killers are victims of male violence, the implication being that they are the way the are because of what has been done to them in the past, and it is not hard to find parallels between Anna's ordeal and eventual descent into madness and that of Monica Ranieri, the villain of the director's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Argento has always been famous for showing the killer's point of view, usually in the form of subjective camerawork, but here he takes the idea to its most extreme example, portraying the world so fully through Anna's eyes that, until the end, audience has no idea what is fantasy and what is reality. As with so many of Argento's films, the opening ten minutes are incredible - there is no dialogue at all, just Guiseppe Rotunno's deliberately restrained, realistic photography and the same few bars of Ennio Morricone's deliberately repetitive score playing over and over. Actually, the entire first half of the film is a brilliantly sustained exercise in tension, atmospheric without indulging in Argento's earlier penchant for exaggerated colour schemes and surrealist photography, while exploiting some brilliant experimental narrative techniques, the most effective of which sees Anna stepping inside a painting and finding herself re-experiencing an old case which explains (to the audience and to herself) why she came to be at the Uffizi gallery. It's wonderfully deranged - she literally walks into a picture frame and out into the street through an open door - and yet, in the unstable, fluid world that Argento has created, makes perfect sense. Throughout the film, Anna seems to move between different dimensions: quite apart from stepping in and out of various paintings, after being raped for the first time by Alfredo, she comes to in a space that is difficult to determine. At first it seems to be a room, but it is only once she flees that it becomes clear that she was inside a car. This appears to be a deliberate attempt to destabilise the audience and hint at Anna's sense of displacement.
All of this insanity is in service of the character of Anna, and indeed, this may be the closest Argento has come to creating an in-depth character portrait. The scene in which Anna, left alone on a hospital ward after being raped, finds a pair of surgical scissors and begins hacking off her hair, is dramatic stuff and demonstrates the level of sensitivity Argento shows towards his protagonist. As Anna, Asia Argento has an extremely tough time, and it is quite clear that she suffered at times for her father's art (the rape scenes, despite showing considerable restraint in their lack of gratuitous nudity and graphic details, are nothing if not unpleasant to watch), but the result is a brave performance that is a strong contender for the best of her career, something that is much easier to appreciate in the Italian version, which uses Asia's natural speaking voice. (The English dub is awful, replacing her gravelly tones with the breathy, mid-Atlantic sound typical of an American dubbing actress trying to sound vaguely European. The film's dubbing director, Nick Alexander, inexplicably thought that neither Asia nor Thomas Krestchmann would be intelligible when speaking in English, and so had both of their roles revoiced.) As a side note, Argento originally planned to shoot the film in Arizona, and at one point had Bridget Fonda tapped to play the role of Anna, but ultimately it seems to have been for the best that he relocated the action to Italy and cast his daughter as the lead.
Crucially, and despite the various acts of violence that Anna perpetuates after losing her sanity, Argento never loses track of the fact that she is a victim in all of this. Even at the end, after the police have discovered that she is responsible for the death of two of their colleagues, they do not give up on her, with the final shot, an homage to Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ, providing one of the most heartbreaking and yet hopeful climaxes in Argento's career. Anna is a tortured being, and much is clearly very wrong with her long before the rape: her frosty, strained relationship with her father (John Quentin) and brothers indicates a decidedly unsettled family background, while a flashback scene which shows her, even as a child, being profoundly influenced by the art on display during a visit to a local museum.
Alfredo, meanwhile, is one of Argento's nastiest villains ever, and, fittingly, he gets the most brutal send-off ever given to one: he has rusty springs jammed into his neck and his eye gouged out, is shot in the stomach and beaten about the head with the butt of a pistol, and then, with his neck broken, is rolled down a path, kicked off a cliff into the river blow, and carried downstream, his head hitting various surfaces on the way. (The most unsettling moment of violence in the entire film, however, is probably actually a shot of Anna pressing the end of a paperclip under her fingernail - a testament to Argento's ability to make his audience squirm in reaction to very little.) Here, Anna reduces him to what he reduced her to - the victim. Having beaten him within an inch of his life and dragged him outside, she asks him if he feels dirty (arguably in much the same way that a rape victim feels dirty). And, if we want to take the parallel as far as it can go, the number of ways in which she penetrates him when exacting her revenge (through the neck and eye, and then finally in the stomach with a bullet) is enough to make Sigmund Freud himself squirm. It's quite revealing that Alfredo is never given a motive - he seems to rape and kill simply because he enjoys it - and, in addition to making him seem incredibly dangerous (you get the impression that this is a man who can never be reasoned with), it also fits in perfectly with the world view that Argento propagated in his earlier films. Violence, to him, seems to be a male pursuit, whether carried out by men or women.
Anna's gradual assimilation of Alfredo's personality serves as the film's raison d'être. In this more complex exploration of a similar narrative technique used in Tenebre, in which the film's protagonist turned out to also be its killer, Argento refuses to provide any easy answers as to precisely what is going on. There is a theory, to which I used to subscribe but nowadays find myself less convinced by, that Alfredo is nothing but a figment of Anna's imagination and that she alone is responsible for the killings that take place (ignore, for a second, the logistic impossibilities of this hypothesis - Argento has rarely been interested in logic). What is clear, though, regardless of whether or not you believe Alfredo is a living and breathing person, the entire film is shot through with doppelganger imagery, plucked from Argento's familiar Jungian stomping ground. On numerous occasions, Alfredo is shown in reflection, often in the same shot as Anna, highlighting his status as her alter ego. In a more subtle example, when Alfredo cuts his hand with a razor, Anna seems to react to psychical pain, showing the extent to which their personalities are becoming intertwined. In the second half of the film, after Anna has well and truly assimilated Alfredo, it is even tempting to view the way in which she seduces and then murders Marie (Julien Lambroschini) as being directly analogous to the manner in which Alfredo initially seduced many of his future victims (and the fact that Marie has, to quote Anna, "a woman's name", is clearly of considerable significance).
This second half of the film has been the biggest bone of contention for audiences. Many viewers feel short-changed when it doesn't end at its logical climax - when Anna turns the tables on Alfredo and kills him. This would have made for a very interesting hour-long film (and would have been infinitely better than either of Argento's contributions to the Masters of Horror television series), but I suspect that those who consider the second half superfluous have failed to understand the film's meaning. The second half is undeniably weaker than what precedes it, but the dip in quality is nowhere near as extreme as some critics have claimed. Yes, it lacks the intensity and focus of the first half, and some might consider the final revelation of Anna's part in the murders that take place following Alfredo's demise to be obvious in the extreme, but there is nothing here that is not in support of the thematic concerns. Many point to the fact that Anna seems to stop suffering from the effects of the Stendhal Syndrome in the second half as a flaw or an oversight on Argento's part, but I think they're missing the point. The fact that Anna's hallucinatory episodes are no longer clearly differentiated from her "sane" moments shows just how far gone she now is.
The biggest problem with this half of the film, oddly enough, is a fairly superficial one: the blonde wig that Anna dons, picked out by Asia Argento herself and at the time humoured by a now extremely regretful Dario, looks patently ridiculous. In a sense, it signals the second transformation of her personality, but it succeeds in making what should have been a subtle point painfully obvious. Actually, all of the film's few problems are ill-advised visual touches, the most offensive of which, after the wig, are a handful of extremely primitive computer-generated shots put together by Argento's regular effects specialist, Sergio Stivaletti, in what are claimed to be the first instances of CG effects being used in an Italian film. There are some interesting ideas (for instance, a brief shot of pills travelling down Anna's throat), but the scope of Argento's ambition here was far more advanced than the technology used to execute it.
In short, The Stendhal Syndrome is brutal and brilliant. It is the most mature film Argento has made to date by a considerable margin, and constitutes an intriguing development in his career as a filmmaker that, regrettably, he appeared to abandon almost immediately. It remains by far his best effort since the end of his "golden age" from 1975 to 1987, and is essential viewing for anyone who believes him to be a one-trick pony.
The Stendhal Syndrome's previous North American release was a thoroughly unacceptable DVD by schlock horror purveyors Troma, who somehow inexplicably ended up with the film's rights stateside. (What's next? Criterion releasing Michael Bay movies? Oh, wait.) This version featured a truly dire transfer (in a slightly cropped ratio of approximately 1.45:1) and presented the film in its international English edition, snipping out two brief dialogue scenes, the second of which features a meeting between Anna and Marie's mother, played by Inferno's Veronica Lazar (who is even listed in the credits for the English version). This was superceded in 2003 when Medusa Home Entertainment released the film in its native Italy in a 2-disc set, the first featuring the full-length Italian version with English subtitles and the second featuring the shorter English version. Both releases had comparable image quality, vastly improving on the Troma release but still suffering from some overzealous filtering and edge enhancement. Furthermore, both versions in the Italian release were overmatted to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, resulting in slightly less head room and, on a couple of occasions, noticeable framing issues (the "Roma" location type when Anna returns from Florence is partially cut off the bottom of the screen).
This 2007 release from Blue Underground improves the situation once again, although, perhaps predictably, there is still some way to go before reaching a definitive presentation of the film. It is presented anamorphically in its intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (so some slight pillarboxing is evident), using the full-length 119-minute Italian cut of the film, with the choice of both English and Italian for audio (the two scenes not included in the English version are presented in subtitled Italian, regardless of which language you select from the setup menu). While the improved vertical framing is appreciated, a side by side comparison between the two reveals that, in certain scenes, quite a lot of visual information is actually being cropped off on either side on the new release. In terms of image clarity, meanwhile, this is very much a Blue Underground transfer, with a lack of fine detail and some noticeable ringing, meaning that many of the problems present in the Medusa transfer are still apparent here. Colour levels are richer and more natural-looking than on the Medusa DVD, which looks quite sickly in comparison, although the contrast appears to have been boosted, resulting in the shadow detail being clipped. Grain is also more apparent - a good sign, as the Medusa transfer was noticeably noise reduced. All in all, it makes for a marginally more pleasant viewing experience, but it could have been so much better. Comparison screen captures are provided below.
(tighter framing all around on the Blue Underground release)
Above: Blue Underground
(this time the Medusa version is the tighter of the two)
Above: Blue Underground
In terms of audio, the Blue Underground release has the added benefit of allowing the viewer to watch the film in both English and Italian without having to switch discs. There is also a 768 Kbps DTS-ES 6.1 English track for those who want that added oomph, although the fact that the English dub is extremely weak in comparison to the Italian version makes this a far from ideal way to experience the film. For the other audio options, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (448 Kbps) and Dolby Surround 2.0 (192 Kbps) tracks are provided in both English and Italian, but even here there are problems. On Medusa's release, the Italian 5.1 track had a strange echo effect that was quite annoying to listen to, and it is replicated here. However, while the 2.0 stereo track on Medusa release sounded fine, the Italian 2.0 surround track on this new DVD has a similar echo to its 5.1 counterpart, leading me to believe that it is merely a downmix of that. I don't know whether the film was originally mixed in 5.1 or not (the Dolby Digital logo at the end of the film would seem to suggest that it was), but what I do know is that I have never heard a convincing presentation of the film in Italian in 5.1. The English 5.1 and 2.0 variants lack the echo, but, as previously mentioned, the dubbing is so bad you really shouldn't bother with them.
Optional English subtitles are provided. They are large and yellow-tinted, and as a result seem a lot less discrete than the smaller, white typeface used for the Medusa release. More problematically, they correspond to the English dub rather than providing a literal translation of the Italian dialogue. They are, however, accurate and easily readable.
Where this release really score brownie points is in terms of its bonus content. The sole extra provided on the first disc is a trailer, which includes an American voice-over and, interestingly enough, exhibits a colour palette much closer to that of the Medusa transfer than the manner in which the film is presented here. (It also shows slightly more detail than the film itself.)
The real meat and potatoes is to be found on the second disc. Rather than going for a single documentary about the making of the film, Blue Underground have elected to interview various participants separately and give them each their own stand-alone featurette. These range in length from 16 minutes to 23.
First up is a 20-minute interview with Dario Argento, who explains what the Stendhal Syndrome is (he claims to have suffered from it during a visit to Athens as a child) and discusses the origins of the story. He glosses over a few well-known issues, such as his decision to relocate the action from Arizona to Florence, not to mention his notoriously tempestuous relationship with cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno, but this is an extremely interesting featurette, with some fascinating nuggets of information gleaned (for example, Argento is, to date, the only director to have been allowed to film inside the Uffizi gallery, thanks to Rotunno having shot a highly regarded presentation video for Madrid's Prado museum). He concludes by describing The Stendhal Syndrome as one of his favourite projects, which I always suspected would be the case (his best work invariably tends to resulting from him ignoring audiences and distributors and simply making the sort of film he wants) but was quite pleased to have confirmed.
This is followed by a 22-minute piece with Graziella Magherini, the psychologist who wrote the book on the Stendhal Syndrome that inspire the film (the main menu identifies her as "psychological consultant", but I suspect this means in the medical sense rather than her having any sort of advisory position on the film itself), and it turns out to be rather interesting, particularly with regard to her discussion of various real-life cases of the Syndrome, if somewhat dryly presented.
Up next are three separate interviews with key members of the Argento production team: special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, assistant director Luigi Cozzi and production designer Antonello Geleng. In each case, the respective interviewee provides something of a career retrospective, which means that these interviews are considerably less focused than those with Argento and Magherini, but make for worthwhile viewing nonetheless. Stivaletti has the most to say about The Stendhal Syndrome itself, particularly with regard to explaining how the various practical and CG effects were achieved, while the ever-jovial Cozzi's most interesting (if disheartening) comments come in the form of his discussion of the rights issues surrounding Argento's third film, the elusive Four Flies on Grey Velvet, explaining why a legitimate DVD release is unlikely in the foreseeable future. He also discusses Argento's only non-horror/thriller production, the little-seen Le Cinque Giornate, including the hitherto-unknown (at least to me) revelation that the only reason it ended up in Argento's filmography is because its original director bowed out and Argento agreed to step in to avoid losing actor Ugo Tognazzi from the project (Tognazzi, in actual fact, quit anyway). Geleng, meanwhile, has by far the most to say about the actual shooting of The Stendhal Syndrome, while the various pieces of concept art that are provided are a real insight.
If there is a failing in the line-up of bonus features, it is in the absence of an interview with Asia Argento. Earlier this year, Argento expert Alan Jones was hoping to record a piece with her at the Cannes Film Festival, but for whatever reason this ended up not coming to pass, and so her only contribution to the extras is in the form of a very brief clip, shot at the time of the film's production judging by the blonde wig, which appears during the Dario Argento interview. The lack of an audio commentary is also somewhat disappointing, although, given that Jones, who has now recorded three commentaries for Argento DVDs and would presumably have been the most obvious candidate to turn to, doesn't think much of the film, this is perhaps not entirely surprising.
If you already own a copy of the Italian release of The Stendhal Syndrome, then whether you consider this new edition to be a worthwhile purchase will be dependent on whether you feel that the price is worth paying for a slightly improved transfer and new bonus materials. If, however, you only own the poor quality Troma or Dutch Film Works releases, then I would definitely recommend this release.
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