The Stendhal Syndrome Review
‘Marie? But that’s a woman’s name!’, exclaims Asia Argento, as she meets a floppy-haired Frenchman in an Italian art shop, and so encapsulates one of the central and most enjoyable themes explored in Argento’s challenging, gruelling, and ultimately absorbing chronicle of murder, sexual assault, and psychological deconstruction. The disparity between genders, and the inherent brutality of masculinity is stark in Argento’s picture, and when combined with the glorious architectural backdrop, the firm imprint of earlier Argento giallo, and the intriguing condition called ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ – an overwhelming reaction to magnificent works of Florentine artwork – the end product proves a rich, if bizarre reward.
The Stendhal Syndrome conducts this overtly sexual analysis of gender traits during the unfolding drama, and as such it’s perhaps both surprising and predictable that Dario Argento should select daughter Asia to take the lead role as troubled and fragile Detective Anna Manni, a sufferer of the condition described by the film’s title. This intriguing premise presents the elder Argento with every opportunity to indulge himself and the viewer with copious shots of works of art, some dazzling architecture, and hallucinogenic sequences which are so immersive as to lend the film a bizarre and fluid quality. The first such sequence, featuring Manni in the art gallery, is delightfully odd, and establishes a tone of uncertainty, where the line between reality and fantasy is unclear.
Argento’s brutal work isn’t flawless by any means, and the overarching sense of ugly sexual threat means that the film makes for uncomfortable and often unsavoury viewing. Manni spends much of the film professionally tracking down and privately fleeing from the cruel and sadistic rapist and murderer Alfredo. Kretschmann’s character is composed of the most brutal elements of masculinity; his physicality is hard, cold muscle, which he uses to obtain his cruel and selfish perverted pleasures, and his manner is direct, uncompromising, and calculated. In order to stand any chance of finding him, Asia’s Manni has to enter his world, and play by his rules. As Manni chops off her hair, her femininity drops to the floor with it, and despite her ever more fragile mental state, she adopts, albeit inconsistently, the worst elements of masculinity. The scene where she grabs the overly pliable and effeminate boyfriend Marco (a man working alongside Manni in law enforcement and presenting a gender dichotomy if ever there was one) and assaults him in her flat, whilst clumsy, is oddly uncomfortable, and demonstrates Manni’s gravitation towards masculinity to deal with her own violation, and to edge ever closer towards the nasty killer.
Argento has discussed how in some of his later films he was able to utilise CGI - which simply wasn’t an option previously - and The Stendhal Syndrome showcases some of these digital manifestations of his imagination. Whilst he has suffered criticism in some quarters for the CGI in the film, the effects are actually fairly inventive and brave in the context of the historical period within which the film was made. Alfredo’s exploits, whilst often repugnant, are a platform for Argento’s imagination to run riot, and such moments as the slow motion gunshot presenting Alfredo’s face against the surface of the bullet as it travels towards its doomed victim prove imaginative and unusual.
Argento’s document of sexual brutality is positively agonising at times; as Alfredo rolls a razor blade around his mouth whilst pinning Manni down, we can barely watch. And the scenes of violence against women are as unpleasant as you will see in any Argento piece. Yet despite its ills and flaws, such as the unevenness of the pacing, and the non-sequitur plot movements, The Stendhal Syndrome provides an absorbing and immersive journey into a weird and often brutal underworld that both repulses and intrigues us in equal measure. It may not be a cast iron classic from the Argento catalogue when compared to the director’s greatest achievements, but it stands up tall amongst his other work of the period, and for Argento fans it is certainly an essential investment.
Argento’s unique fusion of brutality and art arrives on a region 2 encoded disc courtesy of Arrow Video. This Arrow release arrives with uncharacteristically appealing packaging (let’s face it, Arrow releases can have the most garish of artwork; I realise much of the artwork is meant to be retro-nasty era, but still…), although following a chilling backdrop of Asia Argento’s startled face, the artist couldn’t resist a somewhat more salacious depiction of Asia and her ample bosom. There’s also a rather good quality foldout poster of the cover, and the entire package just feels a cut above a standard DVD release.
Particularly welcomed is the 6-side inlay featuring Alan Jones’ commentary on the film, which comes in the form of an illustrated booklet.
The Stendhal Syndrome presents an intricate article, exploiting some stunning works of art and sculpture as backdrops and vehicles to drive forward the impressive chronicle of giallo-tinged horror. Whilst the transfer results in generally acceptable definition and representation of colour, it’s unfortunate to report that there are a number of problems with this release, which undermine the complexity of Argento’s artistic shocker.
The quality of the picture, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 isn’t always consistent, and there are some moments where there is flickering, and evidence of some damage to the film, although this isn’t necessarily the fault of the transfer. Colours generally look a little muted, and there is a degree of inconsistency between scenes. The depiction of Manni incarcerated in the derelict building, for instance, looks sharp and colourful, yet the surrounding scenes of the forest present a distinct graininess and occasional blur, and there is anti-aliasing evident at certain points.
Unfortunately, the disc doesn’t arrive with English subtitles, so you can select to watch the movie in English or Italian. The dubbed English voices often feel particularly badly synchronised with the characters’ delivery, and the cut to a scene of Manni in the hospital is so clumsily executed that it stands out starkly. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that the Arrow have taken commendable efforts to include the restored sections of film, yet these prove most incongruous of all; these particular scenes are not subtitled, and so an English viewer has absolutely no idea of their meaning, relevance, or content.
Arrow Films have been performing a commendable job building up a reputation as respected purveyors of extreme and arthouse horror, but I’m afraid that with this release, they have missed the standards we have already come to expect from them.
In contrast to the visual transfer, I actually rather enjoyed the audio on this release. Available in either Italian or English 5.1 surround sound, the audio soundtrack proves a genuinely immersive experience, with the ‘syndrome’ scenes providing the best experiences during the movie. During these moments, music, multiple murmuring voices, and various other sounds combine to deliver a soundscape which goes some way to convincing us of Manni’s mental disarray as she is entranced by the magnificent works of art. The strings and horns are presented clearly in the mix, and the threatening bass tones which build underneath are reproduced with appropriate depth.
There’s a disappointing lack of extras. The Dario Argento Trailer Reel, which runs for an incredible 39 minutes and 27 seconds, is useful if you’re not familiar with the director’s work, and the superb Cat O’ Nine Tails psychedelic shocker trailer is always a welcome watch.
You can also check out the Trailer for the main feature.
Argento demonstrated a return to form of sorts in the mid-nineties with this giallo-laced shocker, and despite the brutally unpleasant sexual violence, the end product is one which most Argento fans enjoy. This particular release suffers from some visual and presentation issues, and the restored Italian sequences are disappointingly absent of subtitles. The release is also short on useful extras, and the increasingly dependable Arrow Video seem to have missed the mark here. Still, with some dubious earlier releases of this movie, Argento fans could do worse than this release of The Stendhal Syndrome, despite the disappointing elements, and decent packaging and a solid enough audio delivery act as some counterbalance to the negatives.