(***SPOILER ALERT – This review may contain details that could spoil your viewing pleasure.***) First released in 1996 and re-released two years ago, Dario Argento’s “The Stendhal Syndrome” has found a niche in Italian official film festivals and as an arthouse attraction. This movie, billed as a horror/psycho-thriller, borders on high-kitsch porn and exploitation. But upon closer look, it reveals itself as the work of a director having fun exploring his ideas of what pop entertainment should be like. His experiment continues long after the final cut is signed and sealed.
For all this movie’s psychoanalytical posturing and the torments it inflicts on the heroine, its darkest moments have a put-on quality that Argento hides behind an intriguing story, flurries of exciting images and scenes of sexual aggression that are painful to look at –- at the same time erotic and revolting. Nearly lost in the drama is the fact that the victim, police detective Anna Manni, is played by Argento’s daughter, Asia. She is a perfect foil for him and his willing accomplice.
The syndrome of the title is a phenomenon brought on by hypnotic works of art, where the viewer suffers vertigo, hallucinations and confusion that can lead to memory loss and obsessions. Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini describes the psychosis in her book “La Sindrome di Stendhal,” Stendhal being the French novelist who had a similar experience. For an artist such as Argento, the book is a perfect cue for his unique style of moviemaking.
It’s an indication of the respect Argento gets in Italy that the Uffizi art gallery in Florence, which is busy any day, allowed him to film the opening sequences there, even allowing him to linger on Sandro Botticelli’s work “The Birth of Venus” (but not on the other dizzying attraction, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David). However, Argento uses the syndrome merely as a convenient jumping board for the plot and an excuse for his shock-and-go style of filmmaking. The idea is to shock with a perfectly set-up scene and then go on to the next set of visual treats and jolts. Twenty minutes into the movie, the Stendhal angle practically disappears, relegated to some dark corner of the plot.
The swirling surfaces of paintings that occasionally engulf Anna are not really the life-altering events in her life. The blame goes to serial killer-rapist Alfredo, who abducts her and makes her his 13th victim but lets her escape, only to resurface later to repeat the nightmare. Thomas Kretschmann plays the blonde psycho in the elaborately staged rape session with over-the-top brutality that’s at the same time realistic and faked, teasing the audience into a state of revulsion, disbelief and cheap thrill. Is this for real?
Of course it can’t be for real because realism is as alien to Argento’s style as pineapple is to pizza (a no-no in Italy). Notice the setting of the first rape — it’s more like a porn movie set than a killer’s lair. And poor Anna looks less of a victim of a heinous crime than a sacrificial virgin bound on an altar complete with flickering candles. The second rape scene is quicker, coming at a point where Anna is losing her grip on reality, while her obsession to catch the killer and exact revenge is being thwarted by her vague erotic longing for Alfredo.
Argento’s perfect marionette
Asia is her father’s perfect marionette. Anna goes through several comebacks and transformations in this film and Asia gamely goes through them all. She metamorphoses from a brunette Venus with flowing tresses to a blonde, androgynous gamin. She is assigned a number of unlikely roles: as an investigator of rape cases, a tourist who’s losing her memory, a girl at odds with her father, an action painter, a print art collector, a rape victim who finds love again and finally as an avenging angel.
Even when Anna is supposed to be losing it, Asia isn’t, being always in command and never losing the innocence on her smooth-as-porcelain face. She can display Anna’s emotional scars or hide them on cue. Like most of the cast, the quality of her acting is mostly audition-level, but this could be the director’s bidding. Yet, for the cathartic ending, she rises to an entirely different plane, up there in Italy’s undiscovered chamber of grade A actors.
Argento reconfigures reality through his use of décor, images and music. Anna’s multiple tasks are matched by the implausible shifts in her flat’s décor, where the walls can be plastered with her bizarre paintings one moment and then reproductions of classic works the next. From the same walls can appear in a wink her stalker or scenes from her past. Blood, meanwhile, is purely a studio prop, dropping and flowing too copiously, and defying nature’s course as it cakes too soon. In a hallucination attack, Anna plunges into the water where a monster dolphin with a ghastly human face is waiting to kiss her. That 10-second image sticks in the mind.
Argento also consciously gives his moments of suspense a superficial quality. Ennio Morricone’s taut score is a one-beat, one-tone affair, a takeoff of the tick-tock rhythm, layered with the wailing of the siren and the warbling of a woman. That would have been just right in the 1960s but a cliché in the ‘90s. The sometimes stiff dialogue appears to have been scripted by Argento and two others in English, and then dubbed when necessary by native speakers who seem to have lived in Italy for ages.
Critics have dismissed Argento’s style as unworthy of Hitchcock, with good reason. By the 15th minute of the movie, there is no question of who the killer is. But then the director springs a surprise that’s worthy of Hitchcock. In its last nine minutes, the film hits new gear as Anna, sensing that Alfredo is still stalking her, continues to fear for her life while her mind continues to withdraw from reality. Her kindly psychiatrist Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli) comes to her timely rescue. Here, the story takes a new turn, hitting an impasse that offers a few escape routes, inviting questions with different answers and speculations with conflicting angles.
Everything happens all at once and too suddenly. It’s too late for us to think and reflect. The rug has been pulled out from under our feet. Hey presto, the master showman of kitsch has done it again.