Tuesday, June 14, 2011
THE STENDHAL SYNDROME
Dario Argento, 1996
Starring: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonacelli
It sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL is a film that changed my film-viewing experience. It was the first horror film I had ever seen go through the eyes of a victim in a respectful, realistic way and still remain a horror film. The first time I watched STENDHAL I expected a dud, because of its bad critical reception. I was actually floored. If you are expecting something beautiful, violent, sometimes funny and with a ripping good mystery like most of Argento's other films, that is not what you are going to get from STENDHAL. It is a realistic descent into one woman’s madness, self-loathing, identity loss and paranoid delusion. It is jarring and difficult to watch and not the type of horror film to see with your buddies and a case of beer. For maybe the only time in his career, Argento manages to capture female victimization from a feminine perspective. Maybe it’s because the role was played by his daughter?
Roman detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento, whose character is bizarrly named after her real-life dead sister) goes to Florence in search of a serial rapist turned killer (played by the beautiful Thomas Kretschmann). During her search, she is led to the famous Uffizi Gallery by the killer, but then is struck by the Stendhal syndrome. This syndrome is an actual psychological ailment that is caused by a work of art and gives the victim amnesia, dizziness, fainting spells and usually pertains to a larger question of identity loss and dissociation. While Anna is afflicted with this, she is in a foreign city and has no way of defending herself from the serial killer now stalking her. Grossi, the killer, rapes and kidnaps her. She escapes and undergoes some serious personality changes. She cuts her hair, dresses like a man, breaks up with her boyfriend and cuts herself. The police department punish her, in a way, for her ordeal, first by giving her a desk job and then by sending her on leave to her family home. Here Anna descends further into depression and begins painting. In a truly creepy scene, Grossi kidnaps her again and takes her to his secret hideout in the countryside where no one will ever be able to find her.
This film is full of beautiful, poetic and dream-like imagery. There are plenty of distorted reflections, splatterings of blood, breaking glass, a fixation on lips and the constant appearance of artwork. Anna’s immersions into these painting is just another element that sets STENDHAL apart from other cat and mouse serial killer films. The use of language is also important. She barely speaks in the film and usually limits herself to one sentence phrases. Language is also constantly manipulated. Things her therapist says are repeated by Grossi and things Grossi says to Anna during her ordeal become part of her internal vocabulary.
There aren’t many bad things I can say about this film. The acting is very good. Asia pulls off an incredibly grueling performance with only a little beginner’s stiffness. Thomas Krestchmann is wonderful; he is insanely creepy, intense and sexual. How can you forget the razor in the mouth? The settings are all beautiful and overwhelming and in this film Argento finds a way to unite his characters with the setting. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of my favorite. Apparently the style of writing he used is based on a type of Spanish music that can be played backwards as well as forwards. The unsettling, Diamanda Galas-style voices especially freak me out.
The question everyone seems to ask in connection to this film is whether or not it is weird that the director’s daughter plays a repeatedly exploited rape victim? To be honest, I’m not sure. I think he treats both his daughter and the character respectfully. Though it is clear what is happening to Anna, the most nudity in the film is a partially exposed breast. Most of the rape scenes are implied rather than shown, with the camera focusing only on one actor at a time. This is definitely not IRREVERSIBLE. My biggest qualm has nothing to do with the rape scenes, it actually has to do with Stendhal’s syndrome. While this adds layers to the film in theory, it is visually very difficult to pull off. When you first see STENDHAL it is a little confusing and the digital effects used to make the paintings come alive feel very dated. And thankfully the Italian language track is included, because the dubbing is terrible.
I'm reviewing the two disc version, which is well worth it for all the special features. The second disc is chock-full of interviews. It begins with Argento, who discusses how he heard about psychologist Graziella Magherini’s book The Stendhal Syndrome and how it inspired him to write a script. He briefly addresses working with his daughter. The second interview is with Magherini. She started a study of the Stendhal sydrome after treating multiple patients for the then unknown ailment at a hospital in Florence. Most victims were tourists who developed the symptoms while viewing art. After several years of documenting and researching this new malady, she chose the name Stendhal’s syndrome from Stendhal’s book From Milan to Reggio Calabria, where he discusses his experience with the symptoms. Next, Sergio Stivaletti is interviewed about his special effects. He talks about his long relationship with Argento, Bava the Younger and Soavi. Mostly he discusses the difficult effects and how they were acchieved.
STENDHAL's assistant director and long-time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi tells a lot of interesting stories about the early days with Argento, particularly working on FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and FIVE DAYS. He also did a lot of work on PHENOMENA and TWO EVIL EYES and runs Argento’s shop in Rome. The final, extremely candid interview is with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. When asked to talk about films such as CONTAMINATION and MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, he laughs and says that they are “bullshit.” I’m a little disappointed that there are no interviews with Asia or Kretschmann.