Stendhal Syndrome LE Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) comes to Rome, hot on the trail of a notorious serial killer/rapist. Her search brings her to Uffizi Gallery, where she suffers an attack of a rare affliction called the Stendhal Syndrome and faints. She awakens with temporary memory loss and is assisted by a kindly stranger who recognizes her symptoms. When it turns out that the kindly stranger is actually her serial rapist target, Anna finds herself stalked, and is in for a series of terrible attacks and depressing humiliations. (From Blue Underground’s synopsis)
As the 1990s rolled around, Dario Argento was surfing on the momentum of one of his biggest international hits, Opera (aka: Terror at the Opera, 1987), and attempted to break into the mainstream American market, his second, following a disappointing relationship with Twentieth Century Fox during the making of Inferno in 1980. He shot two films stateside, Two Evil Eyes (Italian: Due occhi diabolici, co-directed with George Romero, 1990) and Trauma (1993). Both were critical and financial disappointments. Soon after, he abandoned plans to film a third American movie in Phoenix, Arizona. While the Inferno experience forced Argento back into familiar giallo territory, leading him to make Tenebrae (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 1982), this time failure inspired Argento to expand his dramatic palette and eschew the comfort of giallo conventions (apparently, he did consider remaking The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for a time). The resulting film, titled The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), forwent the typically Argento-esque structure of elaborate murder set-pieces, protracted the emotional consequences of the violence, and approached many of the director’s favourite thematic concepts from a more meditative point of view. It grew into one of the most challenging, controversial, and confrontational motion pictures in the director’s canon.
Even though The Stendhal Syndrome’s plot is pretty far removed from the director’s formulaic early gialli, the title syndrome does thematically tie it back to the likes of Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971), both of which feature plots inspired by unusual medical facts that Argento had read about. However, unlike the supposed evil genetic marker of a the double-Y chromosome (as seen in Cat O’ Nine Tails) and the concept of the final image an eye sees being captured on the retina at the time of death (as seen in Four Flies on Grey Velvet), the Stendhal Syndrome is a recognized disorder, though it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Named for author Stendhal (a pseudonym for Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783-1842), who first described the phenomenon in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (pub. 1817), the syndrome is defined by dizziness, fainting, confusion, and hallucinations caused by exposure to works of art or similar experiences of great personal significance. It is also known as hyperkulturemia or Florence Syndrome. In the film, Argento uses it as a device to instigate the plot and set precedent for Anna’s degrading mental state.
Stendhal’s syndrome allows Argento to revisit Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) theme of art possessing psychological power and ramps it up to the nth degree. Anna doesn’t find herself in the thrall of just one random painting that happens to tie to a traumatizing event in her life – every work of art that she stumbles across is a potential danger. From a narrative standpoint, Argento reuses Tenebrae’s “transference of guilt” plot device, in which the protagonist secretly murders the black-gloved killer, then adopts the persona to commit a different series of crimes. In this case, the protagonist remains somewhat innocent, at least in the Hitchcockian sense of the word. She’s marked by the violence visited upon her, rather than using another’s violence as an excuse to unleash a ruthless vendetta (she’s more of a Norman Bates analogue than a genuine psychopath). The syndrome also gives Argento a reason to revisit Tenebrae’s ironic criticism of violence in media/art. In that film, he affirms the popular belief that the author of violent art (in this case a trashy murder mystery writer) is a violent person in their daily life. In The Stendhal Syndrome, he finds a clinical reason for art to be dangerous. During an interview with Alan Jones, reproduced in the author’s book, Profondo Argento (FAB Press, 2004), Argento said:
My overriding excitement concerned the fact that art is meant to raise the spirits, not crush them or take them over. In school we are taught that art can enrich our lives. Stendhal found out that wasn’t true. It can also be debilitating. The possibility of art being deadly really interested me.
Speaking of Hitchcock, The Stendhal Syndrome is brimming with thematic references to Vertigo (1958), though it’s more of an anti-Vertigo than a true successor/homage (like, say, Brian De Palma’s Obsession, 1976). Instead of a bereaved man trying to remake his lover in the image of the woman he watched die, a woman tries to remake herself as her attacker, while adopting a more masculine persona and violent sexual streak.
The majority of viewers probably won’t care about Argento’s process or the connections to his other work, due to the pure, driving cruelty of the centerpiece sequence, where Anna is held captive, beaten, humiliated, and repeatedly raped by the serial killer she’s meant to capture, Alfredo Grossi (portrayed by Thomas Kretschmann), is so upsetting. This elaborately staged sequence, along with a quick set-piece where Grossi shoots a woman through the cheek in super-slow motion and a hallucination in which Anna kisses a fish with a human face, are among the most Argentoesque things about the movie, yet none are quite in keeping with his typical M.O. Before The Stendhal Syndrome, Argento tended to deal with sexuality in non-explicit terms. His movies are full of killers who express their aberrant sexuality with elaborate acts of representational violence, but actual sex is almost always depicted off-screen. His protagonists often flirt, his supporting casts feature LGBTQ characters, and there’s nudity peppered throughout Tenebrae, but, in Argento’s world, knife equals penis and murder is photographed with all the longing and beauty of a sex scene. Grossi’s assault is the opposite – it’s brutal, ugly, and depressingly austere.
To make matters more controversial, Anna is portrayed by Argento’s real-world daughter, Asia. Though she had already starred in Trauma (as well as appearing in bit parts in his non-directed productions – Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2, 1986, and Michele Soavi’s The Church, 1989), the whole ordeal was quite the media circus in Italy – before the whole rape subplot was even revealed. Both Argento’s apparently considered Anna somewhat of an homage to Clarice Starling, the in-over-her-head, but resourceful and bright FBI agent portrayed by Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (again, according to Profondo Argento). If this is true, it might make the rape/revenge aspect of the story even more contentious, because it exhibits a profound misunderstanding of what makes Starling’s connection to Hannibal Lecter (as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) so interesting. It downgrades a unique and respectful relationship into a brutal internship and substantiates the long-running fictional tropes stating women can’t be ‘strong’ characters unless they’ve survived a traumatic ordeal. One could argue that Argento is asserting the opposite claim – that the assault turns a strong woman into a violent offender – but the audience doesn’t know enough about pre-ordeal Anna to assume much of anything about her. Besides, The Stendhal Syndrome doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists among hundreds of other rape/revenge movies from which it borrows these conventions. Really, the only things ‘saving’ it from valid claims of transparent misogyny is the fact that Argento maintains focus on Anna as a person, thereby avoiding the killer POVs that define his typical gialli, and deliberately avoids eroticizing any aspect of her torment.
Asia’s strong central performance helps as well. I remember originally finding her acting stiff, but, after subsequent viewings, I have amended that opinion. Anna’s emotional damage and splitting personality would normally be served by sensationalism and histrionics, but she chooses to bottle up most of the character’s intensity – a choice I initially chalked-up to the insecurity of a young actress. The film’s sub-par digital effects haven’t aged very well, either, though it’s easy enough to forgive this particular issue, since they were conceived at a time when Italian CG was in in its infancy (The Stendhal Syndrome was actually the first major Italian motion picture to utilize the technology). It’s still easy to respect the creative use of the effects, which isn’t something I can say for any of the CG in Argento’s post-Syndrome movies.
The Stendhal Syndrome was released just before DVD became a breakout home video format, so it didn’t have a solo VHS release in North America. Instead, ne’er-do-well indie distributor Troma Films got their hands on the rights and released the film on both VHS and DVD in 1999. This debut was a grimey, non-anamorphic mess and the issue wasn’t really rectified until Italian distributor Medusa’s two-disc anamorphic special edition in 2003. There were other DVDs, including discs from Arrow in the UK and Pioneer in France, but the Medusa version was the clear frontrunner until Blue Underground released their first DVD in 2007, followed quickly by the film’s Blu-ray debut in 2008 (there is also a German BD from X-Rated Kult Video that I haven’t seen, but assume that it recycles the BU transfer). That disc was the early days of HD home media, when it was still difficult to parse the video quality of HD material. Initially I considered it a good, but very grainy transfer. With the benefit of nearly a decade of Blu-ray reviewing experience, I now know that the issue is a mix of telecine/CRT noise artifacts and sharpening effects/haloes.
This new 1080p transfer was derived from a 2K restoration of the original camera negative. Contrasting the two versions (2017 release on the left, 2008 release on the right), the old CRT/over-sharpening problem seems much more obvious, giving the remaster a huge advantage right off the bat. The richer, warmer color quality and subtler gamma is another big plus, especially where the brightly lit sequences are concerned. It’s probably important to note that the new color-timing is closer to the Medusa DVD, which was considered the most authentic by fans for some time. From here, I suspect arguments may arise concerning the comparative softness of the remaster, as well as the presence of light, blotchy grain on the print. Personally, I don’t think this is a DNR issue, because the softness seems more accurate than the over-sharpened 2008 details, but I admit that the spongy grain may be the result of compression. The best argument for compression being at fault is found in the darker (usually neutral) background blends, while the best argument against it is its consistency and fact that the grain more or less matches the other minor print damage artifacts (note that there was an earlier version of this very disc that was more compressed, leading BU to release a patched version). The final difference between the two BU releases is the framing. From what I understand, Argento and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno prefer the 1.66:1 aspect ratio that BU used for both of their original BD and DVD releases. Re-framing the film at 1.85:1 isn’t jarring, but I’m curious as to why the change was made.
Blue Underground has included 7.1 and 2.0 audio mixes of both the English and Italian language tracks in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The Stendhal Syndrome was made in the mid-’90s, when the Italian film industry was finally using synced sound, so some of the dialogue may have been recorded on-set. Most of the dialogue seems dubbed in either language, so, as usual, the choice will depend on taste and the fact that Asia Argento doesn’t dub herself in english. The film was also prepped for digital audio distribution, so it’s very possible that there was an original 5.1 mixed for Blue Underground to draw upon for the 7.1 remix (for the record, their last Blu-ray also included 7.1 mixes and their DVD included a 6.1 English mix). I still assume the 2.0 tracks are closer to what the filmmakers originally intended, but don’t find either remix particularly intrusive or ‘artificial’ sounding, aside from a couple of awkward ‘aural trips’ between cuts that are present in both English and Italian. The extra channels come into play where ambient noise, Anna’s hallucinations, and music is concerned. The key differences between the audio options (besides the fact that the actors are mostly speaking English) is found in the English track’s overall volume levels, though it should be noted that the louder effects are also sometimes a bit crackly.
The Stendhal Syndrome reunited Argento with super-composer Ennio Morricone for the first time since Four Flies on Grey Velvet, after which the director had developed a lasting musical relationship with Goblin and keyboardist/songwriter Claudio Simonetti. Morricone’s dreamy, vocal-heavy classical themes fit the film’s tone quite well, though I do recall hoping he would recreate the nightmarish free jazz he created for those early gialli at the time.
Note that this disc features the complete Italian release version of the film. The English language cut is about two minutes shorter, so some footage (none of it violence) was only dubbed in Italian.
Disc 1: Blu-ray Copy:
Commentary with author Troy Howarth – The author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and co-author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava (Midnight Marquee Press, 2014) discusses the The Stendhal Syndrome, Argento’s themes and other movies, the clinical psychology surrounding rape/sexual assaults, and the giallo/Italian horror tradition, in this super fact-filled track.
Three Shades of Asia (20:01, HD) – Asia Argento describes her time on the film (she replaced Bridget Fonda early in pre-production), her preparation, and the many challenges of shooting underwater, shooting in public, and having her father direct her during brutal rape scenes.
Prisoner of Art (13:36, HD) – Co-writer Franco Ferrini talks about building a plot around the idea of Stendhal’s syndrome with Argento and his other contributions to the story. He is surprisingly and refreshingly critical of the final film.
Sharp as a Razor (10:03, HD) – The final new interview features makeup artist Franco Casagni, who describes the various gore effects fabrication, design, and execution.
Poster and still gallery
Disc 3: Archive, original BD/DVD extras (DVD; Disc 2 is a standard definition DVD version of the film and new extras):
Director: Dario Argento (20:02, SD)
Inspiration: Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini (20:39, SD)
Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti (15:47, SD)
Assistant Director: Luigi Cozzi (21:51, SD)
Production Designer: Massimo Antonello Geleng (22:39, SD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.