The Stendhal Syndrome

Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento (story by Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini; based on the novel by Graziella Magherini)
Stars: Asia Argento (Detective Anna Manni), Thomas Kretschmann (Alfredo Grossi), Marco Leonardi (Marco Longhi), Luigi Diberti (Inspector Manetti), Paolo Bonacelli (Dr. Cavanna), Julien Lambroschini (Marie), John Quentin (Anna’s father), Franco Diogene (Victim’s husband), Lucia Stara (Shop assistant), Sonia Topazio (Victim in Florence), Lorenzo Crespi (Giulio)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1996
Country: Italy
The Stendhal Syndrome
The Stendhal Syndrome

The Stendhal Syndrome (La sindrome di Stendhal) marked Dario Argento’s return to Italian filmmaking after spending half a decade in the U.S., where he directed two poorly received films, Two Evil Eyes (1991)—a two-part effort based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the other half of which was directed by George A. Romero—and Trauma (1993). For his return to his native Italy (the last film he directed there was 1987’s Opera), Argento chose to use the central concept from Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini’s 1989 book The Stendhal Syndrome to anchor a murder mystery, thus harkening back to his earliest directorial efforts like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), which were more traditional giallo devoid of supernatural elements. As he put it, he wanted to make a “high-concept European movie,” and he centered the action in highly visible locations like the Uffizi Gallery and prominent streets in Rome.

The plot concerns a homicide detective from Rome named Anna Manni (Asia Argento, the director’s daughter), who we first meet wandering through the Uffizi in an amnesiac haze, eventually succumbing to the titular psychosomatic disorder, which involves people becoming overwhelmed psychologically and physically while in the presence of great works of art. Anna has been tracking a serial rapist/murderer who we soon learn is a disarmingly handsome, well-dressed, seemingly polite man named Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), who decides to make Anna his next victim. However, rather than killing her as he has begun doing with his other victims, he allows her to live, thus placing her in the precarious position of being both hunter and prey, forever looking over her shoulder for the very man she is tracking. Anna begins seeing a psychiatrist (Paolo Bonacelli) at the behest of her captain (Luigi Diberti), but she finds that she is increasingly disconnected from those around her, including her boyfriend, a fellow detective named Marco (Marco Leonardi). In fact, Anna begins to display signs of sadistic and sadomasochistic behavior, which suggests that she has become somehow possessed (psychologically or otherwise) by Alfredo, which Argento beautifully foreshadows early in the film when his reflection merges with her face inside the window of a taxicab.

As with most of Argento’s films, The Stendhal Syndome bears traces of both his strengths and his weaknesses. In terms of the former, it is a film of great visual intensity, and Argento uses the titular syndrome as a good excuse to send the camera spinning and whirling; he also employs some fairly clunky digital effects to convey the idea of Anna actually stepping into the paintings that are overwhelming her, an idea whose thematic merits outstrip the limited technologies used to convey it. Working with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (who had previously worked with Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Terry Gilliam, and Bob Fosse, among others), Argento dials back the baroque visual outlandishness that characterized some of his previous films (notably his 1977 masterwork Suspiria), but he still maintains the consistent evocation that the action is taking place somewhere between dreams and reality. The film’s best sequence is arguably its enigmatic opening, which dispenses with dialogue for nearly 10 minutes as we follow Anna, who at this point is a complete mystery of a character, around the Uffizi; it evokes the best of Brian De Palma, particularly the visually similar museum sequence in Dressed to Kill (1980), but it is also uniquely Argento-esque. The film also benefits substantially from a creepy score by composer Ennio Morricone, who by the mid-’90s had already reached legendary status and with whom Argento had collaborated on his first three directorial efforts in the early ’70s.

From a story perspective, The Stendhal Syndrome isn’t a masterwork, but it is one of Argento’s stronger efforts, as it never devolves in narrative chaos or comes completely unraveled in terms of reason and logic. It certainly pushes the bounds of the rational, but in a way that feels purposeful, rather than sloppy. There is at best a tenuous relationship between the titular syndrome and the mystery plot involving Anna tracking her own rapist; at times, it feels like Argento is simply shoehorning in the psychological issue to fill in the gaps for the rest of the story or simply because he’s fascinated by it, although Anna’s psychological fragility despite her powerful position as a police detective helps bridge the divide. Argento does go over the top in ways that aren’t particularly useful, such as when he depicts pills going doing Anna’s throat for no apparent reason (here the cheesy-looking digital effects break down the film’s aura), but at other times his tendency to push boundaries really pays off (such as the shot when Alfredo leers at Anna through the ragged bullet hole he just put in another victim’s face).

Argento had originally intended to cast Bridget Fonda in the role of Anna and shoot the film in the U.S., but when he moved the production to Italy, he cast his daughter, Asia, who had previously starred in Trauma. Asia is certainly a good actress, and she acquits herself very well in a role that is immensely complicated, even though she looks far too young to be a seasoned police detective (one wonders how the film might have been different and possibly better with an older actress in the role, rather than a 21-year-old who sometimes looks even younger). Anna goes through three dramatic personality changes, each of which is matched by a shifting physical appearance (she is introduced with long dark hair and soft, light colors, shifts to a more masculine appearance with pants and short hair, and finally adopts a Veronica Lake-esque blond wig and dramatic Hollywood sunglasses). The psychological toll of her experiences form the film’s emotional bedrock, and our sympathy with Anna remains strong even when her behavior begins to deviate from the norm in unexpected and unsettling ways. The Argentos—both the director and the actress—don’t hold back in conveying the intensity of sexual violence in both physical and psychological terms, and The Stendhal Syndrome is at its best when it drives us deep into its fractured aftermath.

The Stendhal Syndrome Blu-ray + DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Italian DTS-HD 7.1 surround
  • Italian Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1 surround
  • Italian DTS-HD 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by author Troy Howarth
  • Video interview with star Asia Argento
  • Video interview with co-writer Franco Ferrini
  • Video interview with special makeup artist Franco Casagni
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster and still gallery
  • Video interview with director: Dario Argento
  • Video interview with psychological consultant Graziella Magherini
  • Video interview with special effects designer Sergio Stivaletti
  • Video interview with assistant director: Luigi Cozzi
  • Video interview with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng
  • Collectable booklet featuring new writing by author Michael Gingold
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    Release DateJuly 25, 2017

    Blue Underground presents The Stendhal Syndrome in a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative. They have already released the film on Blu-ray once back in 2008, although that release was criticized in some quarters for being too grainy and inconsistent (it was also framed at 1.66:1, whereas this release is 1.85:1, which is apparently the proper theatrical aspect ratio). The new transfer looked very good to my eyes. There is definitely some grain present, which I appreciated, but not so much that it creates any distraction or takes away from the detail. Black levels look great, with solid inkiness in the darkest parts of the frame and good shadow detail. The intensity of the color palette varies throughout the film, with some scenes more desaturated while others pop with vibrant hues. I didn’t notice any signs of age or wear. The Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is excellent, giving Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score a fully immersive feel and utilizing some nice directional effects. You will notice some lip-synch issues because the film was shot with the actors speaking English and then dubbed into Italian, although the English-language track (presented here in Dolby Digital 5.1) was also dubbed (much to Asia Argento’s chagrin, as she notes in her interview). Blue Underground has kept all the supplements that appeared on the earlier Blu-ray (which are housed on a separate disc) and added a host of new ones, starting with a great audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films. There are also several new video interviews with people who worked on the film: star Asia Argento (20 min.), who recalls it as the favorite of the films she made with her father although she primarily remembers how much suffering she went through to make it; co-writer Franco Ferrini (14 min.); and special makeup artist Franco Casagni (10 min.). There is also a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery with 45 theatrical posters and promotional stills. As mentioned, a separate DVD houses all the earlier supplements, including substantial video interviews with director Dario Argento (20 min.), psychiatrist Graziella Magherini (20 min.), visual effects designer Sergio Stivaletti (16 min.), assistant director Luigi Cozzi (22 min.), and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (23 min.). Packaged with the three-disc set is a thick booklet featuring a lengthy new essay by author Michael Gingold.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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