Written by: John White on December 27th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, January 26th, 1996
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonacelli
DVD released: December 2004
Approximate running time: 114/113 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen (cropped at 1.66:1)
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Italian and English)
DVD Release: Medusa
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: EUR 14.99
Anna Manni is a police detective investigating a rapist/killer. Whilst on assignment in Florence, she is told that the killer will be visiting the Uffizi gallery. Despite a childhood fainting fit in an art museum, Manni goes to the gallery and becomes so overcome by the art that she hallucinates and passes out. On awaking she has forgotten who she is and makes it back to her hotel where a second hallucination brought on by a painting reminds her who she is and what she is doing here. As she comes to her senses, she realises she is not alone and she is attacked and raped by the man she is chasing. Like Manni the killer is obsessed by the power of art and he continues to use Manni’s condition to manipulate her. Manni returns to Rome and despite being guarded is found by the killer again. But this time she fights back and seems to have disposed of him. However, murders continue and she remains sure that the killer is alive.
The Stendhal Syndrome is the most coded of Argento’s films and is a picture which never quite explains itself. For those of you expecting a police procedural or a Giallo or even a Whodunit you will be surprised. The identity of the killer is apparent from about five minutes in to the film and even the maguffins thrown in at the end of the film are not credible. There are no real chase sequences and the murders are swift. There are also no clues.
The Stendhal Syndrome is not a sleazy thriller. The rape scenes are unbearably harsh and the camera fades out rather than look at them. These scenes are defiantly unerotic and are harder to watch than any of Argento’s choreographed murders. There is no humour in Stendhal, only a very bleak gloomy look at identity and the act of creation.
What there is in the film is plenty of art – Frescos, Sculpture, Body painting and even a long list of every Italian painter that one character can think of. Art, the artist, and the audience are themes throughout Stendhal with the central character being at first overwhelmed by art and later overwhelming it with the death of Marie. The killer chooses art for it’s impact on Anna and subdues her using it, he also requires Anna as his audience – the murder in the car.
Throughout Stendhal, Anna changes. At first, the young woman, then the Tomboy who dresses like a man, and finally the blonde sexually assertive “law student”. As her psychologist points out Anna meets Marie, her victim, in a way not unlike the killer meets her. We begin the film not knowing who Anna is and only learning who she is when she remembers. Dichotomies of identity are present throughout Stendhal – while Anna is debriefed after the first assault she looks professional whilst under the table she sticks pins in her fingers. At the very end the psychologist says that now “is the moment of truth…like taking off a winter coat” and he takes off Anna’s wig. All the other characters refer to her changing physical appearance whilst she refers to herself “I am changing”.
Similarly, sexual identity is a common theme. Anna’s brothers say she looks like a boy, she wants to “fuck” Marco like a “man does” and Marie – a boy’s name or a girl’s. It is very noticeable when Anna is intimate with Marie that she takes the lead by being on top and undressing him – “let me do it”. This is equally important when Anna tells us that she has become the male killer. It needs to be noted that Asia is brilliant in this role and that Bridget Fonda missed out is our good fortune.
The Stendhal Syndrome is not a simple crime film. Dario once said “Sometimes art can be cruel” and that seems to be the message of Stendhal, it may also be that Dario is comparing art with murder as the killer does. In the story of Anna she starts as victim/audience, becomes defender/participant and finishes as perpetrator/artist. This may very well be the point of the Stendhal Syndrome.
It has been said that Argento has not hit the heights since Tenebrae. The Stendhal Syndrome proves this plain wrong; it is along with Profondo Rosso and Suspiria the best of Argento’s films.
The Medusa DVD is the best available release of this film. The picture is presented with some cropping but the colour balance is excellent and the transfer lacks any grain that I can see. The package includes the longer Italian cut of the film which flows slightly better although you can see why the visit of Marie’s mother is normally cut from the film. The Italian 5.1 is marvellous and bar a few spelling mistakes the English subs are excellent.
The second disc has the English cut of the film with English 5.1 dub. I believe this fails to use Asia’s voice which is a bone of contention for many but personally I prefer the Italian track anyway. The extras for the second disc are all irritatingly in Italian with no subs, so the interviews with Dario and Asia make no sense to me!
One slight fly in the ointment is the DVD case. The DVD holder is so firm that I worry that I will break or scratch the disc everytime I take it out.
However, if you are looking for something somewhere between Bergman and Giallo territory this is ideal. It is one of my favourite films and this is the best available disc of it. Buy it.