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.


  1. Hi Tom
    Nice. His daughter? I have not seen this Argento flick. Where have I been? :) After reading your very well written post, I will seek it. James Gracey over at Behind the Couch has an excellent post on Suspiria Broken Mirrors/Bleeding Ears He's pretty much the envy of all of us Argento fans. I'm glad I happened upon your site. Good Luck to you! Until next time...keep those fires stoked.
    Eternally Yours
    Warden Stokely
    Warden Stokely Horrorzine

    1. Thanks Warden! Good to know you'll be seeking this film out, I really do find it to be one of Dario's best although I'm sure several will disagree with that. Oh well. Oh and thanks for that link.