Sunday, October 28, 2012

Art and Death Collide in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME [Argento-thon]

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Troma Entertainment DVD (R1)
Rating: 7.5 / 10

When I began watching films for Argento-thon, one trend I did not expect to see at the beginning was a general increase in quality. Granted, we're only three films in, but when sitting down to watch The Stendhal Syndrome I didn't aniticpate the climb from the "good enough to kill an hour" of The Black Cat to the "so bonkers it's awesome" of Trauma to continue to take another step up to "a thoroughly hallucinatory good time".

I was really happy to see Asia Argento back for more insanity in this film - it's clear from the opening scene that once again, she's going to be playing a character with some deep mental issues. We first see her anxiously wandering through Florence, clearly uneasy. When she enters an art museum, she loses it completely, and is apparently overcome by some truly menacing pieces of art. The creepy paintings and sculptures showcased here are undercut with Ennio Morricone's unsettling score, to open the film on a high note.

After fainting in the museum, Asia's helped by a stranger who returns her purse. Disoriented and confused, she slowly pieces together her apparent identity - that of Anna Manetti, a detective on the case of a series of brutal murders occurring in Florence. It's in her hotel room when we get the first clue as to what's triggering Anna's fugue state after a staring at a painting induces aural hallucinations. It also seems that the killer has a special interest in her, one that puts both her life and sanity in danger.

Don't worry - Argento still has his penchant
 for innovative kill sequences.
The ensuing cat-and-mouse game between the killer and Anna really only occupies half of the film. The other half is dedicated to exploring how Anna deals with her bizarre mental illness and her seemingly constant quest for a firm identity in the face of a series of awful events. Anna's problem seems to be a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli such as art, pain, and human interaction. As she descends into madness it's questionable whether her actions are the result of an insane mind lashing out at random or those of a person who's just had enough of an overly malevolent world and has decided to fight back. I'd vote for the latter, at least for a little while, mostly due to a scene where Anna reverses the power dynamic in her otherwise lackluster relationship and gets really physical with her boyfriend.

It's a shame that the ending broadcasts itself so loudly and so early in the film. While it fully intends to surprise, it's hard not to see how things are going to play out in the end. There's some misdirection along the way, but you can probably figure this one out pretty early given that Anna's level of crazy only increases over time. Still, while it might not be the strongest murder mystery, as a character study this film works incredibly well - largely in part again, to Asia Argento. She seems to have reined in her performance a little bit compared to her previous role in Trauma, and is still willing to go batshit insane, but only when the script demands it.

How closely does this follow Argento's old style? To be honest, I don't really care. The Stendhal Syndrome really stands on its own as a film. While there are a couple of sequences reminiscent of the films of Argento's past (particularly in a POV kill midway through the film), overall it omits the lavish sets, bombastic score, and outlandish kills in favor of a more down-to-earth tone. Okay, at least when Asia's not hallucinating, stepping into paintings, or losing her mind. On an absolute scale, this film enters some pretty out-there territory, but it feels more measured, more in-control. The quieter scenes aren't there as space for filler or requisite exposition, but as a chance to really dig in to Anna's character. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.

The Good:

Asia Argento continues to be convincingly insane. Her character is the most interesting part of the film, which bodes well for the somewhat well-trod mystery story that's layered underneath.

Tons of great hallucinations, including one with graffiti coming to life.

The Bad:

While the film might keep you guessing for its first half, you'll probably figure things out well before the end.

The rape scenes get a little excessive. Again, it's a little weird that Dario continually puts his daughter through the wringer in his films, especially considering how graphic some scenes get. More power to Asia for having the daring to handle some really tough material.

...the hell?

That's Asia Argento kissing a fish. I wish I could put this into context, but really - there is none.

The Verdict:

Having now wrapped up my Argento-thon viewing (but not the writing - much more is coming!) I can confidently say that The Stendhal Syndrome takes the award for best Argento film I'd never bothered to see. If you haven't bothered, give it a shot and be sure to let me know what you think.


  1. I LOVE this film. It's probably in my top 5 Argento films. Slightly overlong, but Asia is just so fascinating to watch that I don't care.

    1. Asia is great in this one - most definitely her best performance in Dario's films. I found that the pacing actually made it more interesting for me, as it kept me guessing as to the direction the story was going to take. (And if it didn't turn out too different than I predicted, oh well.) Even though there are lulls, they didn't seem boring - like you said: thanks to Asia.

  2. Also I'm kind of a sucker for horror films set in the art world.