The Stendhal Syndrome: 2-Disc Special Edition

The Stendhal Syndrome: 2-Disc Special Edition (1996)
Blue Underground
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi
Extras: Interviews, Trailer

Dario Argento has been one of the celebrated masters of Italian horror cinema since the 1970s, but his directorial output since the late 1980s has been largely disappointing to fans of giallo. It seems that he has never quite been able to measure up to the frenzied terror or outrageous shocks of his early masterpieces like "Deep Red" and "Suspiria." Visiting Blue Underground's special edition of 1996's "The Stendhal Syndrome," I feel that some of Argento's more recent work is best taken on its own rather than compared to his earlier films. It is true that there has been a shift in quality and style in his newer productions, but they do have their own merits that often go unmentioned. I rather liked his 2005 TV movie "Do You Like Hitchcock?," and while it was not exactly canonical material, it was clever enough to keep me entertained. "The Stendhal Syndrome" is better than that film and deserves more attention than it receives.

Asia Argento (Dario's darkly attractive daughter) stars as Anna Mannie, a police detective in Florence, Italy who is on the trail of a serial killer/rapist. She also happens to suffer from the Stendhal Syndrome, a psychological condition that causes hallucinations and dizzy spells in people when they gaze at works of art. Unfortunately for Anna, the killer she is tracking is obsessed with art, and so she finds herself frequenting the Uffizi Gallery in hopes of finding him. Enraptured by the paintings around her, she passes out during one of her visits and is helped by a handsome stranger, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann). Unbeknownst to her, Alfredo is the killer she is hunting, and furthermore, he knows who she is. He proceeds to stalk her and eventually kidnaps her, forcing her to witness one of his brutal murders.

She manages to escape, though she must undergo psychological therapy and is put under constant security, often by her partner and sometimes lover, Marco (Marco Leonardi). She immerses herself in dark, therapeutic painting, giving way to the ensuing hallucinations. At one point, she sits on her living room floor and slathers paint over every inch of her body. In spite of the close security, Alfredo finds her again, this time taking her to his private lair where he binds her and rapes her. She retaliates and viciously attacks him, eventually dragging him to a river where she leaves him to die. Assured that he is dead, Anna moves on with her life, sparking up a new relationship (with an art professor, no less) and taking on a new personality. But when she starts receiving threatening phone calls, she begins to suspect that Alfredo is still alive.

Argento brings psychoanalysis to the rape-revenge genre, and for the most part, he succeeds in crafting a taut and fascinating thriller. The concept of incorporating Anna's psychological traumas into her physical ordeals with her rapist is thought-provoking and provides Argento with several opportunities to indulge in his trademark visual flourishes. It also allows the director to tip his hat to Alfred Hitchcock, one of his favorite influences, and there are notable quotations from "Vertigo" and "Psycho." The concept becomes a bit strained by the end, however, as Argento pushes it more toward the sensationalistic, leading the story in directions that become more and more ludicrous, though not entirely unpredictable.

Naturally, a film would simply not be an Argento film without graphic, stylish violence. The violence in this film, however, is a little harder to swallow than that of most of his films due to the sensitive subject matter. The rape scenes, while not terribly graphic, are nonetheless frightening and uncomfortable to watch. Alfredo is a sadist who derives a sick pleasure from making his victims bleed, and his use of razor blades is exceedingly disturbing. Even more troubling is the casting of Asia Argento in the lead role. Try as I might, I was never quite able to forget that she was the director's daughter, and her rape scenes take on an added level of discomfort for the sheer fact that her father is the one who is putting her through this. Perhaps appropriate for a film concerning psychoanalysis, there are some disturbing Freudian implications in Argento's casting of Asia (although the role was originally conceived for Bridget Fonda).

Another problem with the film is its decided overuse of visual effects. This was reportedly one of the first, if not the first, Italian movie to incorporate CG effects. They look quite primitive today, though Anna's hallucination scenes are enhanced vividly. There are times, though, when Argento seems to use CG just for the sake of using it, such as in an early scene when Anna swallows some pills. A rather two-dimensional looking CG shot is used to show us the inside of Anna's body as the pills are swallowed. In addition to looking bad, the shot makes absolutely no sense. Why exactly do we need to see the pills passing through her body? This and similar moments do more to take the viewer out of the story than to draw them in. We are often left thinking more about how bad or how weird a special effect looked than about the gravity of the onscreen action.

Aside from the visual effects, "The Stendhal Syndrome" is technically well-made. The cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno ("Amarcord," "All That Jazz") expertly captures the beauty and artistry of Florence's architecture and cityscapes. Likewise, the score by Ennio Morricone is lyrical and haunting, perfectly setting the unnerving tone of the film. Argento has a way of surrounding unpleasant material with outward splendor, and his films are like visual candy with needles stuck in them. Just as we are admiring the visual splendor, we are assaulted with spectacular violence.

"The Stendhal Syndrome" probably represents some of Argento's best latter-day work. It is not a "fun" movie, per se, with its troubling subject matter and brutal depictions of rape. It is by no means a perfect film, and Argento's stylistic flourishes often undermine the seriousness of the story. On the other hand, it does reveal at least some attempt, however problematic, to present a more sophisticated story than Argento is usually credited with. In some ways, this film may have more academic appeal as a text of study in the rape-revenge genre than commercial appeal, but for those who are not so quick to dismiss Argento's newer work, it is well recommended.

For the first time in America, "The Stendhal Syndrome" is presented in its uncut version. As far as I know, the bulk of the uncut footage has nothing to do with the violent scenes, but I have never seen the censored version and therefore cannot provide any comparison. Blue Underground's transfer is sumptuous to look at, preserving the film's 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced. There is nary a hint of dirt or debris. Colors are warm and vividly rendered. The picture is sharp and crisp with good contrast balance and deep blacks. Exterior shots of the Florence architecture especially are beautifully presented. The transfer was remastered in high definition and approved by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.

Audio is delivered in several options, including English tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, 2.0 stereo, and a 6.1 DTS Surround track. There are also Italian tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. As usual, Argento filmed this movie silently with the actors speaking English, then later dubbed in English and Italian dialogue. Between the two 5.1 tracks, the English one sounds a little better, with clearer dialogue and more strongly emphasized voices. The Italian track, however, seemed more natural, even if the words did not match the movement of the actors' lips. Both tracks showcased Ennio Morricone's score well. Option English subtitles are also provided.

The only extra on disc 1 of this double-disc set is a theatrical trailer. Disc 2 offers the rest of the supplements, which consist entirely of interview segments. A 20-minute interview with Dario Argento gets things going, with the director discussing his inspiration for the film as well as casting and production. The second interview is with psychoanalyst and author Graziella Magherini, who named the Stendhal Syndrome and from whose book Argento drew many ideas. At 22 minutes, her interview is quite interesting and reveals some fascinating information on this condition. Further interviews are conducted with special effects creator Sergio Stivaletti (16 min.), assistant director Luigi Cozzi (22 min.), and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (23 min.). Geleng provides some of the funniest commentary, as he muses over his past films, some of which he is clearly embarrassed by today.

Taken on its own, "The Stendhal Syndrome" is not a bad film. The psychological angle is an interesting hook, and though Argento cannot sustain it for the entire two-hour duration, it is unique among his work. The film should be judged from an entirely different perspective than his earlier giallo, and it should not be so easily dismissed. Blue Underground's treatment, while not full to the brim, provides further incentive to give this underrated movie a look, and it is certainly the best and most complete presentation the movie has received in this country.