The Stendhal Syndrome

The Stendhal Syndrome (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 gialli, a horror sub-genre of lurid, graphically violent murder mysteries drawn from pulp fiction. 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." While it is true that his films from the last two decades have left much to be desired in terms of style, terror, and interest, his 1996 thriller "The Stendhal Syndrome" deserves more recognition than it receives. A stylistic and psychological departure for Argento, it is perhaps among the most sophisticated movies he has ever directed.

Asia Argento (Dario's darkly attractive daughter) stars as Anna Manni, a police detective in Rome who is on the trail of a serial killer/rapist. She also happens to suffer from the Stendhal Syndrome, a psychological condition characterized by hallucinations and dizziness when in the presence of great works of art. Unaware of her condition, Anna tracks the killer to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Enraptured by the paintings surrounding her, she passes out during her visit and is assisted by a handsome stranger, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann). What she does not realize is that Alfredo is the killer she is hunting, and furthermore, he knows who she is. He proceeds to stalk her and eventually kidnaps her, rapes her, and forces her to witness one of his brutal murders.

She manages to escape, but 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 subjects her to twisted, sadomasochistic torture. Her emergence from this experience leaves her in a state of emotional and psychological chaos, equally disgusted and fascinated by sex, and paranoid.

While pretty much all of Argento's films could be called sick, this one is sick on an unusually realistic level. Argento blends psychoanalysis with what is essentially a giallo, turning his attention away from the spectacle of the violence toward the psychological ramifications of it. The film plays out in three acts, in each of which Anna takes on a different persona in response to her physical ordeals. She changes her appearance, becomes detached from the people she was once close to, and pursues new interests each time she is victimized. Unlike Argento's typical heroines, Anna is not an outside observer but an active agent in her own fate as well as the primary object of violence. Unlike the director's typical victims, she retaliates, survives, and learns from her predator. Her trauma and psychological changes are the film's focus, not the violence that triggers them.

The killer in this film is also an anomaly. His identity is revealed early on, and his visible physicality plays a significant role in the film's violent scenes. Argento is famous for revealing only parts of his killers' bodies, usually their eyes and hands hidden in black gloves, saving their true identity (and often gender) for the final reel, but here he displays Alfredo in full throughout, effectively offsetting his attractiveness with the blatant ugliness of his acts. Alfredo is handsome and athletic, and his body is generally accentuated by expressive lighting and sensuous camera angles. He is also a sadist who derives a sick pleasure from making his victims bleed, teasing them by rolling a razor blade on his tongue, and even stabbing himself in an effort to unnerve them. Because he is always made visible to us, he remains an unquestionably human threat, not a supernatural force like so many of Argento's villains.

The violence in this film is, consequently, much harder to swallow than that of most of the director's films due to the realism and sensitivity of the subject matter. The rape scenes, while not terribly graphic, are nonetheless frightening and uncomfortable to watch, cringe-inducing in their intimacy and bluntness. 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).

In a film so atypically rich in substance and complexity for Argento, the main flaws are surprisingly the visuals. "The Stendhal Syndrome" is reportedly one of the first, if not the first, Italian movies to make use of computer-generated effects. They look quite primitive today, though some of Anna's hallucination scenes are enhanced vividly. More often than not, though, Argento seems to use CGI primarily 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 the inside of Anna's body as the pills are swallowed. In addition to looking unconvincing, 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 sweet visual flavor, we are assaulted with something nasty if not outright offensive.

I must admit that after first reviewing "The Stendhal Syndrome" more than a year ago, my reaction was somewhat lukewarm. A second viewing has now opened my eyes to an artistry that I was unaware of before. I can now say without any doubts that it 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. However, it is a much more sophisticated movie than it is generally given credit for, and it greatly improves upon multiple viewings, inviting greater appreciation of its narrative complexities and more psychologically defined heroine.

"The Stendhal Syndrome" is among the first Blu-ray releases from cult DVD company Blue Underground, and it is a promising indication of things to come. Their transfer, remastered in 1080p high definition and approved by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, is a definite improvement over the standard definition DVD. Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, the transfer boasts a terrific picture. The first notable element is the level of grain visible. The grain lends the image a proper film-like appearance, never distracting from the action, and it is reproduced with such clarity that it is quite amazing. Colors are warm and vividly rendered. The picture is sharp and crisp, with good contrast balance and deep, rich blacks. Exterior shots of the Florence architecture are beautifully presented, and the many shots of works of art, especially in the opening scene, are done full justice. Now, it must be taken into consideration that this film is more than ten years old and probably did not look stellar to begin with, so the image quality here is far from reference-quality. But while this may not be the film to show off your system with, this is likely the best it can look on home video, and Blue Underground has done a first-rate job.

Audio is delivered in several options, including English tracks in 7.1 DTS and Dolby Digital 7.1 True HD, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX tracks in both English and Italian. As usual, Argento filmed this movie silently with the actors speaking English, then later dubbed in English and Italian dialogue. All of these tracks do a great job, effectively showcasing the clear dialogue, the riveting music, and the sound effects equally. While there are many intense moments in the film, the sound effects are not particularly thunderous, so this will not give your system a workout. It does, however, convey just enough menace to make this a creepy, suspenseful experience. Optional English subtitles are also provided.

All of the extras on this Blu-ray edition have been ported over from the two-disc standard DVD. 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. Rounding out the supplements is a theatrical trailer. Unfortunately, these features are offered only in 480i standard definition, but they are all presented in anamorphic widescreen.

"The Stendhal Syndrome" is not a bad film at all. The psychological angle is an intriguing hook, leading to a genuinely unique experiment in Argento's twisted body of work. The film should be approached from an entirely different perspective than his earlier gialli, less as delirious exploitation and more as a maturing director's next evolution, and it should not be so quickly dismissed upon first viewing. Blue Underground's Blu-ray release provides the film with its best home viewing presentation to date and also speaks well of the company's premier foray into high definition.