Synopsis: When beautiful police detective Anna Manni follows the bloody trail of a sophisticated serial murderer/rapist through the streets of Italy, the young woman falls victim to the bizarre “Stendhal Syndrome” – a hallucinatory phenomenon which causes her to lose her mind and memory in the presence of powerful works of art. Trapped in this twilight realm, Anna plunges deeper and deeper into sexual psychosis, until she comes to know the killer’s madness more intimately than she ever imagined.
Horror maestro Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera) reaches new heights of florid fantasy and Grand Guignol with this warped work of art starring Maxim Magazine’s “Sexiest Woman in the World” Asia Argento (Land Of The Dead, XXX), Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Blade II) and Marco Leonardi (From Dusk Till Dawn 3).
eyelights: Dario Argento’s stylistic use of CGI, Morricone’s unusual score.
eyesores: Asia Argento’s horrible wigs.
While some are die-hard fans of Dario Argento’s work, I never really got the appeal. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not much of a giallo fan. However, having said this, I’m a fan of Mario Bava, the godfather of giallo. I just don’t seem to get Dario Argento, is all. Or Lamberto Bava, or Lucio Fulci, or…
Still, there have been exceptions, such as ‘Opera’ and ‘Profundo Rosso‘. Mmmm… that’s it, really. So far.
But, in an attempt to give the cult icon a fair shake, I decided to dig deeper into his filmography, eventually picking up a good handful of his other motion pictures. I figured that perhaps I just didn’t see the right ones. And, anyway, sometimes you need more puzzle pieces to get the picture.
Well, I got lucky with this first one; I know that his more recent films barely get any love from even his biggest fans. Many are saying that Argento’s powers have waned considerably since his hey-days, so I knew that this was going to be a crap shoot. Thankfully, ‘La sindrome di Stendhal’ isn’t one of the crap ones.
The one smart thing I did, and that I think I will continue to do with his pictures (where possible), was to watch it in Italian. As I mentioned in a previous blurb, these giallo films were often co-productions and had mixed casts, speaking in different languages. So there’s no way of watching them with all of the dialogue in synch with the lip-movement.
By selecting the Italian version, I was able to sit back and enjoy the picture without worrying about the lip-synching. Not only did I already expect the words to not match the actors, but since I was reading subtitles, I was too distracted to notice the discrepancies. The dubbing was terrible, anyway; I checked the English version and nothing matched. Why subject myself to the frustration?
All this to say that I was able to enjoy the movie as much as anyone can whilst reading the dialogue throughout. Granted, it’s not the same as it would have been if I understood the language and could just immerse myself in the experience, but I don’t mind subtitles – between this and bad dubbings, I prefer experiencing the film in its original language. The only other way would be for me to learn multiple languages. Not gonna happen.
‘La sindrome di Stendhal’ was excellent because, like ‘Profundo rosso’ and Opera’, the film was set in a more grounded reality – there aren’t any witches, demons, magic, undead, creatures, …etc. It all revolves around a serial killer and the police inspector who has been charged to track him down. There is also the added factor of having the lead character, Anna Manni (played by Argento’s daughter, Asia) suffer from the Stendhal syndrome.
As per Wiki, The Stendhal syndrome is “a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art”. It plays a major part in this picture because it’s set in Italy, and our protagonist is subjected to fine art everywhere she goes. Consequently, she regularly has fits that take her into an alternate state of mind.
Aside from the visceral aspects of the picture, this is where Dario Argento has fun, sending her into short underwater adventures, having her walk through walls and re-living past experiences. Argento was the first to use CGI effects in Italy and, despite the cheapness of it (i.e. low-budget film, mid-’90s CGI), he manages to use it to great effect. One has to wonder what Argento would be capable of had he access to Hollywood-style productions.
He also used CGI to create some of the more gory effects, such as when the serial killer shoots a woman through her mouth and stares through it at us from the other side. It didn’t look that great, and it was kind of a cheap, hokey gimmick. In fact, his best stuff came with more basic techniques, ones that emulated the reality of the situation – such as when the killer jabs a razor blade into his hand and uses it on his victim.
This continues to reinforce the notion that ingenuity is better than access to all the tools of the trade. The best artists usually do their best work when they struggle to express themselves, when they have circumnavigate the hurdles that are in their way. Granted, access to some resources helps, but too many resources often breeds an intellectual, if not spiritual, laziness. So, backed with just enough money to make his traditional effects work, Argento succeeds. In attempting to use it for artifice, he stumbles.
The film’s greatest strength lies in the way that Argento manages to leave the viewer disquieted by what they’re seeing. He may be slightly heavy-handed in some ways (for instance when Anna falls face first and pops her lip), but he nonetheless builds up tension in more subtle ways, such as when he brutalizes his characters physically and psychologically. From the onset, we get the feeling that our protagonist has issues – and we know it will likely get worse.
By the film’s end, by the time Anna has gone from being the predator, to the prey, to the victor and back to the victim again, we can’t help but feel sorry for her. Not only was she saddled with an extremely difficult case, but her psychological fragility allowed her to be broken. She is no longer the Anna that we encountered in the first few frames, mousey and reserved. She is now a bolder, more self-assured, but fragmented, self – a woman with deep inner conflicts.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘La sindrome di Stendhal’ explores the dark recesses of the human mind in a particularly profound way – by no means is it ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘Psycho’, or even ‘Mulholland Drive’. But it offers more substance than the average psychological thriller, and certainly a lot more than most slasher films do (well, that goes without saying, I suppose). It tends to be more superficial than I would prefer, however, and would love to see this movie remade with a better script.
A more capable cast might be of the order as well. While Asia Argento has a peculiar quality to her that makes her intriguing, she is not an especially grand actress – she tends to stare a lot and remains emotionless for a large part of the film. An actress with greater skill could turn this part into a tour de force. The same can be said for many other in the cast, including the serial killer, who chews the scenery a fair bit, and is certainly creepy, but lacks the presence to truly make the character stand out.
Even Ennio Morricone, who I was incredibly surprised (and, it must be said, pleased) to find helming the score to an Argento picture, offered a dramatic but slightly erratic performance: on the one hand he threw in a bunch of epic choirs, but on the other he gave us a traditional string arrangement for most sequences. It was a marked improvement over the prog-rock synth-based (or hard rock guitar-based) scores of previous Argento films, in that it wasn’t as jarring, but it was nonetheless lacking smoothness.
Still, I’d say that ‘La sindrome di Stendhal’ is mostly a success, despite its stumbles along the way. While it isn’t the greatest motion picture experience that I’ve had, even this year, or in recent memory, it was a memorable one, and it teased my brain enough to foster interest enough to watch it again. I may actually watch it with a different eye the next time around, knowing now that Anna’s psychological journey is the essential point of picture. I would like to experience, to witness, that journey without all the other distractions. Next time, it will be my focus.
Date of viewing: November 3, 2012