Would you like to know the precise moment OTF is updated? 
Click here to join the OTF mailing list!

Director: Dario Argento

Italy - 1996



The credit sequence lets you know you're in for something different; the entire right side of the frame occupied by a scrolling panel of paintings, each staying onscreen just long enough to be recognized and then moving on. This isn't even where our attention is supposed to be, as credits are fading in and out on the vast majority of the screen, and yet the viewer becomes very aware early on that whatever drama this Stendhal Syndrome may pertain to, it will be played out against art. Not specific works (although several play very important parts), but the collected works of the past few millennia- ART, as both a playing field and plot point. There's also that Ennio Morricone score, which may be the only time a film has been scored as a passacaglia, with its simultaneously menacing and childlike simplicity. There's more going on here than you think, the film tells us, and this is just in the credits sequence.

The literal Stendhal Syndrome refers to a phenomenon, named after the titular writer, that affects people in museums throughout the world, where the presence of so much art literally overloads them, leaving them weak and sometimes provoking unconsciousness or hallucinations. In the case of this film we confront this early on in an epic opening scene, where a unique-looking woman in white (the lovely Asia Argento, daughter of the director and now an acclaimed director herself) walks through the streets of Florence, entering the Uffizi Gallery. She becomes easily engrossed in much of the work she encounters, becoming overwhelmed finally by a Caravaggio portrait of Medusa and by Breugel's Fall of Icarus, the latter of which she falls into (in what was the first digital effect used in an Italian film). It's a dynamite opening sequence, and the fact that it is done with no intelligible dialogue gives it a strange and epic feel.

There are two people in the world who are called Maestro on an international level; the Maestro of Love Barry White, and the Maestro Dario Argento. If anything, the opening sequence of The Stendhal Syndrome stands alongside some of his greatest setpieces, and you know he still has it. And while the films Argento has made since this one have been disappointing, I would rank Nonhosonno's carpet crawl up there too, so there is still some hope.

After being revived by an onlooker, the woman gathers her purse (minus her gun, which has disappeared since her collapse) and, with no memory of her name or purpose, goes to the hotel whose card she found among her things. We will learn that her name is Anna Manni, and that she is a police officer based out of Rome who operates in the Sexcrime Unit (sort of like Law and Order: SVU, only with better outfits). She had come to Florence because of a tip that a brutal serial rapist was going to be there at the Uffizi that day, and he was. Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann, most recently from The Pianist and Blade II) was there, at the Uffizi, and he took an interest in our Anna, stealing her gun, making the pretense of befriending her, and then, after she has a couple bouts of hallucinations/exposition of what I just told you, he brutally rapes her.

Now, when I say brutal, I mean it. It is a horrifying scene, and the fact that Argento is directing the brutal rape of his daughter is like a Freudian fragmentation grenade. It definitely increases the unease and revulsion that the audience experiences at such displays, and it puts us firmly in the shoes of Anna, who escapes (barely) and tries to put her life back together. She starts visiting a psychiatrist who likes to bandy about phrases like "Let's try never to use words like 'crazy'" and who teaches her about the Stendhal Syndrome, and how she should go spend time with her family in Viterbo. She does, but not before cutting her hair, developing a penchant for wounding herself (first with a broken wineglass on a train, then with an unfolded paperclip), and throwing her supportive and confused boyfriend up against the wall and humping him from behind.

While in Viterbo, she gets in fights with her family, boxes one of her brothers senseless at a gym, and decides to try painting to get at some of what she's feeling. Her paintings are disturbing pools of blackness and you know what that means- she's going to have to get naked and cover herself with paint and roll around on the canvas to get all this body-oriented pain in her out. She does, but it's not exploitative, and it actually works as one of the better scenes in the film because it has no dialogue. You see, Dario shoots without using a sync-sound system, so all the sound gets dubbed in later. The english language voice of Anna is not Asia Argento (a fact which galls her to this day), and is in fact rather unexpressive and whiny. As such, the scenes which just focus on Asia's physical performance, face, and body language are much more effective than those with dialogue.

Anyway, Alfredo resurfaces and kidnaps and rapes Anna again. There is an astonishing and vicious sequence where she, alone and shackled to a filthy mattress in a graffiti-laden grotto, loses her mind and frees herself. She puts out one of Alfredo's eyes, shoots him, and kicks and beats him a lot, then pushes him off a cliff and into a river. But when she tries to return to normal life with a blonde wig (to hide a scar), an interest in art, and a hunky new boyfriend named Marie (yeah, I know), the terrifying phone calls start again, and it seems that there is murder in the air.

This film is as consistently dark and menacing as anything Argento has ever done. There's something at stake here that goes beyond the usual giallo stakes of buxom victims and ornate mysteries, moving into the tender psychopathology that haunts a lot of Roman Polanski's weirder efforts. The vicious rape scenes haunt the viewer, and Anna's attempts at changing herself after the two attacks (the first time by cutting her hair short, the second by adding the blond wig) again tap into the whole idea of the place between art and artist. That she meets Marie while purchasing poster prints is a mild irony, as she is trying on both art (the posters) and archetypes (the trouble-free blonde girl).

Picked up by Miramax in 1996, The Stendhal Syndrome languished on their vast shelves for three years before Lloyd Kaufman and the good freaks at Troma picked it up for the U.S. Their Region 0 DVD has a decent image, slightly letterboxed, and with a good assortment of extras. What with the recent success of XXX and the theatrical and video release of Asia Argento's directorial debut Scarlet Diva, one can only hope that more viewers are willing to take a chance on this vicious masterwork. Judging by 98's Phantom of the Opera and 01's Nonhosonno (Sleepless in the U.S.), this is currently the last great film Argento made. Here's hoping that his next flick, Il Cartaio, or the following one (which will supposedly complete his Three Mothers Trilogy, notably without the input of Daria Nicolodi) will help restore some shine to the Maestro's reputation.


-- Copyright 2003, Jason Shawhan



**Spoilerific stuff here!**


We love your money!






Home  Reviews  Ramblings  Mail  Updates  Links