Monday, August 26, 2013

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

Its always interesting to read the opinions of fans regarding the later period films of Dario Argento, more specifically the films from his post-Opera (1987) career beginning with Trauma (1993) as they have a tendency to be dividing. Then there’s of course his loopy 1998 version of The Phantom of the Opera, almost universally considered the be the black sheep of his entire filmography although that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its share of supporters, they’re out there. Sleepless (2001) was considered by many, and rightly so, to be a return to classic form with Argento going back to his preverbal giallo roots, however it also has its fair share of detractors that claim its a mere copy and paste job with Argento simply aping elements from his past work. Caught in the middle of all that ruckus is 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome. The Stendhal Syndrome was and still is an important film for Argento as it marked his return to Italy after spending some time in America (which he would later describe during an interview as a “waste of time”) for the filming of the aforementioned Trauma and his collaboration with George A. Romero Two Evil Eyes (1990). To this day The Stendhal Syndrome remains one of Argento’s most polarizing and ultimately one of his most misunderstood efforts which is unfortunate as its truly one of his more fascinating works.

After tracking rapist/murderer Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann) to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, young police detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) begins to experience the Stendhal syndrome which causes her to loose herself amongst all the great works of art in the gallery and faints, which Alfredo later uses to his advantage and soon Anna becomes one of his victims. Although she manages to escape and goes back on the job, the event has left her psyche in a fragile state, altering her reality into a distorted collage dominated by fine art and psychosis.

The Stendhal Syndrome (La sindrome di Stendhal) has the distinction of not only being one of Argento’s most original films but its easily one of the most original psych thrillers out there. The actual Stendhal syndrome named after the 19th centaury French writer is quite the phenomenon in itself and the way Argento was able to craft a story around it is pretty damn unique. The film is certainly one of Argento’s more jolting experiences with its combination sexual violence and distorted psychology not to mention the fact that both the psychological and sexual elements are set against the backdrop of a syndrome that is most commonly associated with profound beauty is quite the unique dichotomy, and a jarring one at that. What’s also interesting is the way Argento essentially split the film into 2 distinct halves with the psychological aspects taking center stage during the second half. Its here where the film seems to draw the most criticism (well, along with the constant questioning of how Argento could have filmed his own daughter in such hideous situations). Perhaps the most common negative term thrown this films way is “predictable” which to some extent is true but at the same time the way Argento presents the events leading up to the films finale never become any less intriguing, especially when considering the performance of Asia Argento, who in her second leading role for her father delivers a complex and layered performance hitting all the right notes needed for Anna’s character to be believable.

A well used go to phrase that has been used by many over the years to describe Argento’s films is that they look like paintings come to life and in the case of The Stendhal Syndrome, that actually happens as we witness Anna physically (and mentally) enter paintings. The films opening segment taking place in Florence’s Uffizi gallery when Anna first experiences the titular syndrome are perhaps its most memorable and not just because of all the amazing works on the walls, but the way Argento puts the various masterpieces on display to use by essentially creating the symptoms of the syndrome,  cutting back and forth between the art at the gallery and Anna with dizzying effectiveness. Its not just high-end classic art that Argento puts to use either as evidenced by a particularly startling sequence of Anna experiencing the syndrome around grimy street graffiti in an equally gritty location. This film is also notable in its featuring of some pretty early computer generated imagery. Given the time period in which the film was made, some of it does look quite primitive, think of graphics from a 90’s PC game, such as following of the path of a bullet going through a cheek or the shot of a pill going down Anna’s esophagus, although Argento claims that these images weren’t intended to look 100% realistic and were meant to have a surreal quality to them and when viewed in context with the themes present in the film that makes a lot of sense.

Argento himself claimed to have experienced the syndrome as a child as he was climbing the steps of the Parthenon in Athens, and did some extensive research while writing the script, even getting assistance from Dr. Graziella Magherini, and Italian psychiatrist whose 1989 book which goes by the same name of the film was the first to not only refer to the condition as the “Stendhal syndrome” but to explore it within a psychosomatic context. Magherini is interviewed on Blue Underground’s must have 2 disc edition of the film during which she describes a few case histories of different individuals who have experienced the syndrome and the descriptions are beautifully vivid. She also praises Argento’s accuracy at the way he presented the syndrome in the film, particularly the scenes in the Uffizi. Its really a mesmerizing phenomenon and again it takes a real visionary like Argento to be able to think of using such a thing in a film but to actually be able to create a story (and a twisted one at that) around it takes a real imagination, and while The Stendhal Syndrome may lack the all out extravagance of a Suspiria (1977) or an Inferno (1980) in favor of a slightly more gritty approach, it more than makes up for it in ideas and stands as a real highlight for Argento and not just in terms of his later career.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Symptoms (1974)

AKA The Blood Virgin

Sometimes being a fan of these types of films can be frustrating. Not in the sense of some of them being obscure and at times a bit difficult to track down, that sort of thing comes with the territory as any fan will attest to, not to mention the DVD-R grey market making getting a hold of certain films on disc relatively easy. The frustrating part comes as a result of films that should have had an official DVD release a long time ago still lingering on the shelf. The fact that the majority of the films of José Ramón Larraz have yet to receive legitimate DVD releases is a subject that has been ranted about by fans ad nauseam online the world over and deservedly so. Take into consideration the amount garbage that actually gets top shelf digital treatment while the films of Larraz, the obvious exception being Vampyres (1974) and possibly Black Candles (1982) continue to dwell in obscurity should be considered a crime against cinema. Its true that all of Larraz’s films should have official releases but if one film had to be singled out from the rest, that film would have to be Symptoms. Symptoms stands out in an already unique body of work as not only being one of the career highlights for Larraz, but also for being one of the absolute greatest horror films of the 1970’s.

Anne, a young woman from London decides to get away for a while at her best friend Helen’s (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald) countryside estate. Not long after arriving however, Anne begins to feel some very strange vibes from the house, the nosey groundskeeper Brady, not to mention Helen’s ill will towards him and a mysterious picture of a woman named Cora whom Helen claims is a “friend”. Anne becomes even more suspicious that there’s something she’s being kept in the dark about after hearing odd noises on a nightly basis and Helen’s behavior becoming more and more erratic making it apparent to Anne that there is something very wrong with her friend.

In many ways Symptoms is the film that Larraz was working towards his entire career. All the ideas and themes Larraz had introduced in previous films like Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and Scream and Die (1973) such as the isolated countryside setting, foreboding gothic atmosphere and an ominous sense of mystery are used to perfection here. In the hands of a lesser director these devices would come off on the screen as stock and cliché, but Larraz crafts a masterpiece with his unique way of putting these elements to use. What may surprise some viewers only familiar with Larraz’s more lets say “tantalizing” work, is the absence of graphic sex and violence from Symptoms. Granted there is a bit of a sexual component to the story but Symptoms is far from the visceral barrage of skin and sanguine that is Vampyres, its pure psychological horror and at times legitimately unnerving and unsettling. Larraz’s slow storytelling techniques are again brilliantly utilized as the film gets more and more disturbing the further it moves forward with Larraz never once loosening the tension, always letting it be known even very early on in the film that something isn’t quite right with what’s happing while at the same time allowing the film to retain its ambiguity. Perhaps the biggest strength of Symptoms is presence of Angela Pleasence, tailor made for this role possessing a face with the ability to convey sympathy one moment and in an instant become disturbing and threatening, oftentimes both at once.

Larraz may have always had a knack for getting the most out of his locations but with Symptoms he really outdid himself. The house, the forest that surrounds it, the nearby lake, these are not just mere locations and surroundings, they’re characters in their own right, Larraz gives them personality. One scene that always comes to mind is when Helen and Anne go for a canoe ride in the lake, Larraz constantly cuts back and forth between the tress, the water and Pleasence’s face, which goes back to the commanding presence of Pleasence (excuse the lame play on words) and Larraz’s ability to capture a mood by just aiming the camera at her face. Larraz’s trademark feeling of isolation is ever present, the countryside where the house resides may be beautiful from a visual standpoint but with it also comes an aura of unease along with the estate, which Larraz takes full advantage of. The estate itself is where the gothic elements come into play. At times the film even begins to feel like a classic haunted house story the way Larraz chose to light the interior night shots. The set decoration of a particularly important attic room is a definite highlight and it certainly didn’t hurt that the weather seemed be feeling a bit moody during these scenes and several others. What’s amazing is that even a DVD-R recorded from a worn PAL VHS with some pretty washed out colors cannot take any of the overwhelming atmosphere of the film away.

One of the more baffling aspects regarding the current status of Symptoms outside of Larraz fans and those with an interest in European cult cinema is the fact that not only did the film play at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it happened to be the official British entry. Granted a lot of films have played at Cannes and surely many have gotten lost in the shuffle throughout the years but for a director such as Larraz to have had a film play at such a prestigious, probably the most prestigious film festival there is only for the film to, for lack of better terminology make a disappearing act after one broadcast years later on British television in 1983 is quite puzzling. The British Film Institute has rightfully taken notice and when they released a list of their 75 most wanted films believed to be missing in 2010, Symptoms made the list. Today the film is again, only seen via old VHS tapes or DVD-R’s sourced from said VHS tapes, the original prints for the film are MIA. Despite that it is encouraging to know that an institute like the BFI believes the film to be important enough to warrant a place on their most wanted list, as it really is a brilliant film that deserves to be seen and not just by genre fans. Top shelf psychological horror and Larraz’s magnum opus.