“It was the paintings, wasn’t it? Works of art have…power over us. Great works of art have great power.”
When I first viewed Dario Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME more than ten years ago, I was struck by how different it was. It felt like a brave new step for the director, setting it apart from all other thrillers which were being made at the time. The film is genuinely disturbing in many ways, but not just in how it deals out its shocks. Unlike most thrillers it actually attempts to get into the true psychology of its lead character even if it is in the darkest way possible. Its scares are harsh, messy and personal. Its sensations are ugly, brutal and at times lyrical. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but sometimes ease isn’t necessary. That STENDHAL never got a decent release at the time never really surprised me. As an attempt to move into different territory for the director, it’s too arty to be sold as a standard horror film, yet its extreme gore and brutality makes it too violent for the art house crowd. This has led to it being difficult to adequately critique the film in America--not only was the eventual DVD release by Troma one of the worst imaginable, but even those lucky few who got to see 35mm prints saw a version which was dubbed into English instead of being subtitled. Of course, every Argento film has been dubbed in America but it seemed to hurt this one more than it had others. Fortunately, the new DVD release from Blue Underground with the original Italian language track allows its admirers, however few there may be, to view THE STENDHAL SYNDROME in the best way possible.
It’s a brutal film, but also one that is very elliptically plotted, making it difficult to adequately summarize. Rome policewoman Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is in Florence investigating the case of a serial rapist/killer. Following an anonymous tip she goes to the Uffizi Gallery where she is suddenly overwhelmed by a strange sensation as she views the paintings. Unbeknownst to her, she is actually being tailed by the killer (Thomas Kretschmann of Polanski’s THE PIANIST and Jackson’s KING KONG) who watches this as it occurs and uses it to his advantage so he can later invade her hotel room. Anna’s protracted torture and rape follows and, following her escape, she learns that her response to the paintings was due to the fact that she suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, a real-life form of illness that can result when people have physical responses to certain works of art. As Anna is aware that the killer may once again come after her, she attempts to further understand the strange affliction that she suffers from.
Much of the background is not revealed as the movie begins, with the first several minutes playing dialogue-free as only Ennio Morricone’s imposing score is heard as we follow Anna Manni through the gallery before her first encounter. In fact, the character of Anna, after fainting, contracts a form of temporary amnesia at the point the syndrome first occurs before we’ve learned anything about her. For several minutes of screen time, we are in the unique position of feeling just as disoriented as the character does. And just as certain plot points begin to be revealed, the character is thrust into the most horrific situation imaginable. The basics of the set-up sound like familiar territory for the director, but almost immediately the tone makes it clear that this is something else. His previous films, both supernatural and grounded in the real-world, were all rooted in the genres of horror and giallo. There’s a pulpiness to them and many succeed as enjoyable horror movies, as graphic as they may be. But with this, there feels like a genuine attempt to break out into new disturbing territory, by adding levels of depth and seriousness while still maintaining elements of what Argento is best known for. His 1987 film OPERA featured a heroine tied up with needles taped under her eyelids, the killer forcing her to watch as her friends are killed. STENDHAL feels like an attempt to take this theme of dealing with what we’re seeing further, by addressing the nature of what is being looked at. In exploring the nature of art and what it can do to us deep down Argento is acknowledging that sometimes what that art does to us cannot be gotten rid of easily. It’s almost as if Argento is, for the first time, trying to go beyond the simple sensation of the violence that he presents and address what it really means deep down. Even his shooting style feels different in this film. Sequences involving the paintings are as audacious as you would expect, but aside from that it seems to deliberately avoid the wide Scope framing so associated with his earlier films. When Anna Manni arrives back in Rome, we are told this in a simple profile shot of her walking down a train platform as an intertitle reads “Roma”. The deliberately stripped down nature seems appropriate for a film which is focusing on the psyche of a single character, as opposed to the mechanics of a body count. It may not be his best or flashiest film, but more and more it seems like his most adventurous achievement.
The plot of the film is made up of an unusual two-act structure—after the events of the first half, the second hour proceeds as if it’s unclear at first where the story could possibly go. It’s a bold move on Argento's part and maybe one that doesn’t always work. At the very least, it feels like there could be tightening up in places both in the script stage and in the editing—maybe it’s a feeling that there are so many disparate plot elements he wants to explore that he’s not sure what to leave out and what to focus on at expense of other elements. In that sense, such issues help make it clear how much this film is really Argento’s equivalent of Hitchcock’s MARNIE (with a little VERTIGO in there too), a film which itself wasn’t without flaws.
In addition to certain pacing problems, there are other issues that are tough to ignore, especially certain special effects, maybe some of the earliest Italian uses of CGI, which come off as overly cartoonish and distracting. Fortunately these sequences are relatively brief. The expected Argento tropes of hard-to-swallow plot points are fortunately at a minimum here (such as the infamous moment involving a fish), the most glaring possibly being the blonde wig Anna begins sporting which no one comments on despite the fact that at that point in the film you’d think the characters would be paying close attention to her behavior.
But while Hitchcock had ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Dario Argento has his own daughter Asia. The various rape and torture scenes would be graphic and disturbing enough for many viewers, but using his daughter lends an extra level to this, whether it was intended or not. While she may very well be too young for the role, there’s a power that Asia brings to it that remains present for me on multiple viewings. Maybe I’m letting it slide a little, simply because this is Asia Argento, who I slightly worship anyway, so I can’t bring myself to be overly critical. But while watching her in this film I can see the continuous combination of pain, fear and encroaching madness that is truly present in her. Just looking into her eyes makes this clear enough. That her character is presented as becoming more and more isolated and uncommunicative from not only her friends but her own family as well is also something difficult to ignore, lending other possible levels to how personal a film this may have been. And the overriding power of Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography (his final work in a feature) and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score work expertly in maintaining the mood that help make it unique among Argento’s body of work.
When I first saw THE STENDHAL SYNDROME all those years ago its final scene struck me as a sort of inversion of the ending of OPERA. But watching it now, I’m struck by how the opening and final shots somehow mirror each other in ways that I’m still contemplating. At the beginning we see Anna Manni lost as one in a crowd, but by the end, which has to be one of my favorite shots in all of Argento, we see her surrounded once again but under circumstances which are very different and I honestly find the final moments of the film to be emotionally shattering. Fittingly, that final shot won’t fully let us off the hook even as the credits begin to roll. The new DVD of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, especially when viewed with the Italian track, reveals it as a work of bravery which, even if it is difficult for many to watch, shouldn’t be casually dismissed. The disparate array of flaws which turn up throughout are such that I am forced to acknowledge their presence, but even if in making this film Dario Argento’s reach exceeded his grasp, as the saying goes, he deserved better than what he got. He still does.
“Most of them, they’ll never understand, but…I do. I think you do too.”