The Stendhal Syndrome


When it comes right down to it, the problem with artists that strive for greatness is that they sometimes wind up achieving it ? and then they have to spend the rest of their careers living in the shadow of their masterpiece(s). Case in point: Dario Argento. Whether you?re a painter, sculptor, musician, writer, or any other artistic discipline, you?re lucky to be able to create just one or two works that leave a timeless impression on the masses, and the same is true for film directors. Honestly, anyone reading this (or writing it, for that matter) would probably sacrifice one of their limbs to be able to claim that they directed Suspiria, and then be happy to call it a day (career) and let that stand as their legacy. But Suspiria was only one of a quartet of masterpieces that Argento directed in the period of 1975 ? 1982: that film was preceded by the remarkable giallo Deep Red (1975), a film that Argento himself correctly identifies as his breakthrough work as a director; Suspiria in 1977; the middle entry in the ?Three Mothers? trilogy that Suspiria originated, 1980?s Inferno (still my favorite European horror film of all time); and Argento?s return to his giallo roots, Tenebre (1982), an ultra-bloody, sleekly stylized thriller with some of the most amazing camerawork of Argento?s career.

This is not to imply that there isn?t superlative work both before and after this ultra-fertile creative period: many giallo traditionalists still adore the early ?animal trilogy? of Argento gialli from the early 70s, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat o?Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, all great films if not entirely imbued with the hallucinatory intensity of the director?s later work. Then again, that manic, fever-dream pitch might have become arguably too pronounced in Argento?s two other post-Tenebre 80s films, Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987). Both films ? particularly Opera, which features individual sequences that are among the best work ever done by the director ? have undeniable isolated peaks, but are ultimately too chaotic to be regarded as entirely successful overall. Unfortunately, then Argento did the unthinkable: he came to America to direct two films, and it?s been generally downhill ever since. His half of the Poe adaptation Two Evil Eyes (1990) is passable but insignificant, and Trauma (1993) ? though it has its fans too ? is largely an unfocused mess. Argento then returned to Italy, and a trio of generally awful features ? 1998?s embarrassing Phantom Of The Opera (easily his worst film) and the generic, pedestrian gialli Sleepless (2001) and The Card Player (2004) ? followed, along with a mediocre but oddly entertaining television film, Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005).

There is the obvious temptation to neatly summarize different phases of a director?s oeuvre into cleanly divided chapters, but there?s just one problem in this case ? right in the middle of so much rubbish, following two anemic American endeavors and preceding a slew of clumsy Italian thrillers, Argento actually directed one of his best films: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). Stendhal was originally intended to be yet another American production, to be shot in the Southwest with longtime Argento fan Bridget Fonda in the leading role, but that manifestation of the film collapsed, and Argento went home to Italy to shoot there. Good move. Working with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (a former Fellini and Visconti D.P. who would make Stendhal his last fiction feature before retirement), production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (another Fellini alumnus who also worked for Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi, Ruggero Deodato, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, and Umberto Lenzi!), and composer Ennio Morricone (if you need background info on this one, there?s no hope for you), Argento returned to his homeland with renewed creative force, and Stendhal stands as one of his most accomplished works ? personally, I think it?s also his single best written film, as well as his most underrated. Yet the film still proved disappointing to some, in that the director opted to forego his usual flamboyant visual approach for a more muted, naturalistic style ? sorry, but no hot primary color gels and acrobatic camera crane moves in this one (and when Argento does try to dazzle the eye with some ill-conceived, shoddy CGI trickery ? Stendhal was apparently the first Italian feature to utilize this FX work ? one becomes grateful that these disastrous digital detours appear only briefly in the film). But Stendhal found Argento moving in an exciting new direction, a mature new phase of his career that demonstrated an increased focus on characterization and narrative complexity. Or at least that?s what some of us thought back in 1996. After Phantom Of The Opera, Sleepless, and The Card Player?our optimism is running on fumes.

Dario?s daughter Asia Argento took over the role originally intended for Fonda, playing Anna Manni, a Rome police detective investigating a series of brutal rapes and murders. She follows a lead and tracks the killer to an art museum in Florence, where she suddenly experiences the psychological affliction that gives Stendhal Syndrome its title: an actual medically documented condition, the ?Stendhal Syndrome? (named after the writer who experienced and documented the problem) refers to a state of mental imbalance and confusion that one can experience when inundated with great works of art or even architecture. Dizziness, loss of consciousness, and even temporary amnesia can occur in some who find their senses overwhelmed by uncommon beauty ? and thus Anna passes out while imagining herself entering a painting, at which point her gun is stolen, and the vicious game of cat-and-mouse begins with the murderer, who was actually the anonymous caller that lured Anna to the museum. One should be warned that there may be spoilers ahead, but this isn?t really the case, as Stendhal reveals the identity of the antagonist quite early, and the film is not a mystery in the traditional sense. An intimidating, sadistic Aryan psychopath, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann, previously Asia?s co-star in Queen Margot) abducts and rapes Anna, and also forces her to watch as he sexually assaults and kills another woman (the slo-mo bullet through the mouth during this sequence is the only CGI effect that actually proves effective, though it can?t hold a candle to the door peephole scene in Opera). Alfredo releases Anna, but then ultimately abducts and assaults her again, though Anna would appear to emerge victorious from this encounter (in a very brutal, prolonged scene). Yet the string of murders continue, and Anna and her fellow police officers are forced to wonder what could really be behind the ongoing mayhem?

Unfortunately, to reveal anything more than that really would be spoiling the plot for anyone who has yet to see the film, so I must halt the synopsis there, which is somewhat torturous, in that some of the film?s most fascinating material occurs after a certain twist in the storyline ? I almost wish all of us could meet back here in a month or two after you hopefully purchase Blue Underground?s excellent new DVD of the film, and we can talk about the subtext of the film?s final third then. But there is a theme of the film that ? without revealing too much of the plot ? needs to be emphasized: Argento has often been accused of misogyny in his work, and yet Stendhal is quite possibly one of the most feminist horror films of the past twenty years. Indeed, the misogynist label seems rather absurd in general ? on a personal note, I can?t recall any other major horror director whose work has seemed to resonate so strongly with women (almost every young woman I know owns Suspiria on DVD), and from a critical overview perspective, it?s obvious that Argento has much more affection for his female protagonists than his male heroes. Note the way in which he endeavors (sometimes to absurd degrees) to provide a closing note of happiness and peace for the female heroes of Suspiria, Opera, Trauma, and Phenomena ? or to reflect a genuine sense of meaningful loss and trauma for the women in the closing moments of Tenebre (his real-life romantic companion Daria Nicolodi) and Stendhal (his real-life daughter). When contrasted with the rather bland, distant male heroes of films like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Inferno, Argento?s fondness for strong female protagonists becomes even clearer (perhaps David Hemmings? hero in Deep Red might be the only exception to this rule). Stendhal Syndrome actually finds Argento foregrounding feminist issues to a surprising degree: the only significant female character in the film, Anna is surrounded by men who function as sadists (Alfredo), well-meaning but cloddish boors (her brothers, her ex-boyfriend), or stern, domineering authority figures (her father, her fellow cops). This gives the sexual violence in the film ? which, one should be warned, is fairly brutal and realistically portrayed ? and the harrowing denouement additional impact.

Stendhal Syndrome was previously released on DVD in the U.S. by Troma, in a version that ? typical for that company ? is best forgotten. The film has now been completely remastered and issued on DVD in a 2-disc special-edition from the fine folks at Blue Underground. The film ? presented in 16X9-enhanced 1.66:1 widescreen ? looks fantastic, better than I?ve seen it look in any previous incarnation (including theatrically, and including the excellent Italian DVD on the Medusa label); this version of Stendhal is also a few minutes longer than the previous Troma release. The film is presented with a variety of audio choices, including DTS 6.1 (English only), and Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround for both English and Italian audio tracks, with optional English subtitles. This can?t be stressed with enough urgency: watch the film in Italian with English subtitles. Even for an Argento film, the English dub is notably poor and Asia Argento has complained that she was not given the opportunity to provide her own English dub for that version (she speaks the language fluently, and unfortunately, the dubbing performer who provides Anna?s English voice doesn?t fit the actress or the character at all). Asia was criticized at the time for being too young for the role of Anna, but when you hear her speak in her own voice on the Italian track, it gives the character an additional maturity and depth that is woefully absent in the English dub. The only extra feature on the first disc is a trailer ? brief and bizarre, it also features a brief shot of additional Asia Argento nudity that is not present in the film itself.

The other extras consist of five excellent interviews on the second disc. Dario Argento (20 minutes), assistant director Luigi Cozzi (22 minutes), production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (23 minutes), special FX supervisor Sergio Stivaletti (16 minutes) are each interviewed, as well as psychologist Graziella Magherini (22 minutes), who wrote the book on the Stendhal Syndrome condition that inspired Argento to make the film (the film is obviously not a direct adaptation of this medical reference book, however). Many of us have seen Argento interviewed countless times, and ? for better or worse ? this interview doesn?t provide much new information or insight; the director is his usual friendly, attentive self, but he?s also typically enigmatic to the degree of seeming vaguely elusive. The Stivaletti and Magherini interviews are nice inclusions, but also a bit dry and overlong, in that both interview subjects seem to be reiterating similar points over and over again. Cozzi is ? as always ? very entertaining and personable. A former genre director in his own right, he now operates Argento?s Profondo Rosso shop in Rome, and he speaks candidly and openly about his career, and his work with Argento. But some might be surprised to find the interview with production designer Geleng to be the most illuminating and enjoyable of the quintet (there?s a reason why it?s also the longest): a jovial conversationalist, Geleng also discusses his prolific work in the Italian genre and exploitation fields. In many cases, he responds with hysterical and derisive laughter at some of the titles mentioned ? though notably, like so many involved with this notorious production, he seems less than thrilled when the subject of Cannibal Holocaust is introduced.

All in all, a wonderful package from Blue Underground, and one of 2007?s most important horror DVD releases. As many of you know, Argento?s new film The Third Mother ? the final film in the trilogy initiated by Suspiria and Inferno ? will be premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival the same month as Stendhal?s DVD release. One must remain hopeful and optimistic. There are genre directors whose work I will always see because they virtually never disappoint (Cronenberg, Lynch), directors whose track record is erratic and mixed but I still remain loyal enough to see each of their films (Carpenter, Romero, Miike), and then there?s that sad third category of once-revered filmmakers who have proven so disappointing over the years that I can?t bear to witness yet another failure from them (I?m not going to name them, but I think one can surmise some obvious candidates). Argento is currently in the second category ? but one more misfire could send him into the third camp for me. Here?s hoping that The Third Mother is everything that we are all hoping it can be.