The Stendhal Syndrome

Discussion in 'Reader Reviews' started by dwatts, Jan 29, 2007.

  1. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    This review contains so many spoilers, reading it before you've seen the actual film will almost certainly ruin it for you. So - like - if you ain't, don't. :)


    I decided to view, and write a review, of this film because I've been at war with it for some time. Definately not one of my favorite Argento films, I wanted to figure out what I was missing.

    Along with that, I bought yet another (third!) DVD of it. I cover this in the review. Finally, there's a cheap R2 disc that's worth getting (the R1 is horrid).

    So anyway - I wanted to watch this film afresh, and to note my thoughts.

    There's a version with pretty pictures at this place here.


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    It’s perhaps not surprising that The Stendhal Syndrome wasn’t fully appreciated by Dario Argento's core audience. Argento has a reputation for violent films, often based in fantastical settings: Witches Covens, Opera Theatres, Baroque Hotels. When Argento wasn’t indulging his taste for the gothic he fell back to working within the confines - if it's reasonable to suggest they have confines - of the Giallo. So when Stendhal Syndrome came along, mixing both, but being neither, it was bound to cause some surprise.

    Just what is the Stendhal Syndrome? Is it a horror movie? Is it a Giallo? What are we to make of its three part structure? What is the role of the murderer in a film that makes no effort at all at hiding his identity?

    Along with these questions we ought to examine the status of this film as we consider that Argento often has to fight off claims of misogyny. This film has often been cited as a perfect example of Argento’s hatred, and explicitly nasty, violence against women. Perhaps it’s inevitable that these claims would be made when you consider he’s directing his own daughter in some brutal rape sequences – yes, more than one.

    First viewings of the film can be key. Some has dismissed it as plain hateful after a single viewing, while others – mainly hardcore Argento fans – have managed to build bridges across the most problematic sequences and find something of interest here. Repeated viewings, although probably abhorrent to those that found it so disturbing first time around, reveals an intelligent film with a lot to say about women as victims, and the transference of violence.

    If you’ve seen this movie on DVD, then you should keep in mind that the version of the DVD you have can make a huge difference in how you might feel about the film. In the US, this movie was picked up by Troma, and released on a horrid disc. The visual splendour of the film is lost with a muddy and turgid print. In the UK a cropped DVD was released, with more than two minutes of cuts. The best version is probably the disc released in Italy by Medusa, a two disc set. However, for those without deep pockets, confusingly, Arrow in R2 re-released a good looking – and fully uncut print – a couple years ago.

    I have the misfortune of owning the Troma disc, the cropped UK disc, and now the later Arrow release. Frankly, the latter is the only one worth the shelf space. If you’ve only seen this film in the other prints, then really you’ve not seen it at all. It really does make a huge difference to be able to enjoy the details of this film. After all, looking at fine works of art through sun glasses really does obscure things.

    Getting that out of the way, we can get back to the film itself. We know Dario is in a playful mood from the opening sequence of the film. He uses the camera to disorient us. Anna (Asia Argento) is making her way to an art gallery. She’s clearly not a casual tourist at this point, barging into people, and focusing on some distant intent as she pushes by the tourists on the street. Argento changes the focus of the camera – first we see long shots of Anna moving through the crowds, then we switch to a first person view, then back to a long shot, before having the camera moved to the inside of a cab that is driving at speed passed storefronts. This constant shift of perspective doesn’t allow us to settle down, to focus of Anna.

    In this initial sequence we are assaulted with religious and artistic iconography. Sculptures line the street, priests move left and right around the camera, and we see a mixed race wedding taking place. We are treated to this festival of sights by a camera placed at eye-level for Anna, watching as she stares upward at the looming sculptures. Her place amongst all this action is clearly that of “other”. Her movements are erratic, nervous, and already disconnected.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2007
  2. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    Anna eventually arrives at the Uffizi Gallery, and enters. It is here that she casts her eyes on the works of Breugal (The Fall of Icarus), and Rembrandt (most pointedly “The Night Watch” seen later in the film). The sequence inside the gallery continues the mania in the streets prior, with Anna becoming increasingly confused, manic, and light-headed. This concludes when she faints, falling into a picture.

    Without knowing too much about the synopsis for the film, a viewer might at this point be wondering what the heck is going on. The opening sequences focus on a young woman, and the fact that she suffers from a little known mental illness “The Stendhal Syndrome”. Argento includes a segment a little later where the syndrome and its symptoms are explained to the audience, but initially we’re left to experience this strange malady without warning. Just what kind of film is this going to be?

    To add to the pot, there isn’t a single line of dialog for fully seven minutes. So we never get to learn anything about this woman, and what she’s doing. The fact is, while the syndrome is indeed an interesting plot point, her reasons for attending the gallery were not at all to glance upon the works of art. Not only that, but the central theme of the film is rape, and the effect the assault has on the victim, not the disease.

    Eventually we get to know something about this central character. Anna is a police woman working in a rape investigation unit. She is on the trail of a rapist, who at the start of the film has already assaulted 15 victims, and killed a couple of others. It’s extraordinary that we should join the film at such a late stage, and this really should tip us off that the killer, and the killer’s motives, are not central to the focus of the film. This is not going to be a police procedural where the main concern is tracking down the killer. Indeed, it is the killer that has invited Anna to the gallery, in order to meet her.

    After the incident at the gallery, Anna makes her way back to her hotel room, confused and having forgotten why she is there at all. It is at this time that Argento fills in some of the back story, cleverly using Anna’s Stendhal Syndrome to allow her to walk through a painting in order to provide a flashback. Soon after this we experience the first rape sequence.

    Rape is, of course, abhorrent within itself. When it’s portrayed on screen in such a violent way, as it is here, then it is bound to offend. A muscle bound, sweaty man sitting atop a woman, slapping her face, and then presenting a razor blade from between his teeth in order to cut her lip, isn’t family entertainment. This highly unpleasant scene – which for many was made more so with the knowledge that Argento is filming his own daughter playing the victims role – has caused some consternation.

    Personally, I think we ought to separate fact from fiction. The feelings of the audience, affected as we are by the final product of a scene once the editors and technicians have been at work, surely aren’t the same thing as being on set. Our experience is more visceral, more affecting. Yes, this is Dario’s daughter, but I refuse to believe Dario in any way got pleasure in subjecting Asia to the indignity of the scene. Tough to do, no doubt, but not beyond the realms of good taste.

    It is during this initial harrowing scene that we first see the image of pure white, spotted with red. Here it is shown as blood splashing from the wounded lip onto the bed sheets. We see this again later in the film, but it’s most pronounced once Anna moves into the third phase of her physical being.

    Anna moves through three physical identities during the running time of the film. The initial Anna is a policewoman, confident that she has a lead to the rapist. She is dressed in feminine clothes, a skirt and white blouse. After the initial attack, she cuts her hair short, and begins wearing more masculine attire. The third stage is accomplished by her wearing a blond wig, with long white summer dresses – the perfect femme fatale (and who better to play one?) It is while in this persona that the white and red motive reoccurs – this time we have the blond hair (white), the white dress, with the only punctuation being the red lips of her mouth.
     
  3. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    If you watch The Stendhal Syndrome casually, without worrying too much about picking up the details, then this physical transformation might seem quite confusing. Indeed, even when you take the time to take it all in, the fact that no-one – not close friends, colleagues, or even her doctor – bother to ask her why she’s started wearing a blond wig, is indeed odd. I still don’t have an adequate explanation myself, though the film seems to suggest she has done this to hide a scar from the second rape. Still, it's such a drastic change surely someone would have asked about it.

    What is clear, however, is that over time Anna is taking on the characteristics of her rapist. This is not simply a physical apparition, mentally she is also taking on his traits. This is most obvious during a sequence when she fakes a rape attack on her boyfriend, and then later in the film when she meets a new lover and insists that she undress him, rather than the other way around. The blond hair mirrors the hair of the rapist. During the final moments of the film she tells a victim that the killer is inside her, so this can be seen as externalizing his physical features. When we finally get to meet the rapists wife, she too has long blond hair.

    All of this takes place over the entire running time of the movie. In fact, this is the central theme of the film. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, and it’s not a Giallo either. There is one moment, near the climax to the film, where it flirts with a Giallo moment – when a doctor seems as though he’s about to confess to being a killer, but Argento resists this final urge to revert to type, and confounds us by seeing his story through to the end. The Stendhal Syndrome is a film about rape, about the damage rape does, about the violence it represents, creates, and perpetuates. Heady stuff from one of the founders of Italian gore cinema.

    Perhaps then, the most affecting scene in the film is the final shot of Anna being arrested on the streets of Roma. Anna has been pursued through the streets by a group of policeman, she is knocked to the ground and they try to restrain her. It is at this point that Argento decides to film the scene precisely as he had the earlier rapes. Anna is laying back, staring up into the close up shots of her male colleagues, glaring down at her with twisted faces calling out her name. Suffering an obvious flashback, Anna finally breaks down. It’s a powerful end to the film, as Anna, in her minds eye, has to relive her attack, while at the same time finding salvation.

    In the end, The Stendhal Syndrome challenges Dario Argento fans like no other film he’s made. It features his trademark brutality, but since the central character is so sympathetic, for once we can’t indulge ourselves in the gore without feeling that it’s wrong, it's more palpable. Anna isn’t simply a vehicle for actions, a token to which Argento can hoist some special effects work. She’s a real person, going through terrible emotional strain. She’s a person of authority, a policewoman, turn asunder.

    This emotional engagement is far more heightened here than in any other Argento film, and indeed, Argento hasn’t attempted anything of this gravitas since. Given the reception the film received, perhaps this is a good thing for his career.

    So what of the role of The Stendhal Syndrome itself? Argento uses this malady to confuse Anna, to break down any logic or common sense she might possess, but that seems to be his only interest. Mind you, he chose to steep every frame with some work of art, from the ancient to the modern. In background shots you see paintings, sculptures, and prints. He also chose to have one key Stendhal Syndrome sequence triggered by graffiti, hardly what most might consider true “art”.

    The technical details of this film are worth mentioning briefly too – even if they are well known. This film was the first Italian feature to use CGI, and while the artist, Sergio Stivaletti, makes no excuses today, realizing things could have been a lot better, it was still a brave thing to attempt to pull off at the time. CGI is used to create doorways out of paintings, to allow Anna to walk into a waterfall, and most poorly to show pills travelling down Anna’s throat. Add in some, rather obvious, CGI blood during a shooting sequence, and you have a first that didn’t quite work out.

    The lead role of Anna was offered to several reasonably big name actresses before being given to Asia. First up was Bridget Fonda, then Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s a credit to Asia Argento that it’s difficult for me to think about these women in the role any longer. Asia owns the role, and I don’t believe either of the names would have done a better job. This is quite a confession for myself, since I’ve been rather harsh on Asia’s acting abilities in the past. The Stendhal Syndrome adequately illustrates that, given the right role and treatment, she can indeed be better than most.
     
  4. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    So why so much hostility toward this film? Well, I’ve already covered the issue around when and how you view it. First off, you need a good DVD. Since the primary market, the US, has among the worst quality releases out there, this surely isn’t going to help things. You then have to consider where this film fits within Dario Argento’s filmography. It sits sandwiched between the disappointing Trauma, and the even more disappointing Phantom of the Opera. It’s easy to casually glance over this time period and write off a whole decade of Dario’s work as that of a man in cinematic decline.

    But perhaps this isn’t fair, perhaps we’re harsh simply because he’d risen to such heights, the only way to go was down? Perhaps we’ve been too hard on him, as he explored different ideas, and flirted with Hollywood, as America beckoned and he was lured to the US to make his own films, while trying to make them look and feel like their films. After all, Trauma is actually gaining some plaudits now. Maybe this is because in this day and age, every film it seems, manages to gain for itself a core crowd of people content on labelling just about anything their mothers don’t like “cult”. Or maybe, just maybe it’s good.

    In the case of The Stendhal Syndrome, I think the main problem with it is that it is hugely misunderstood. People hear the “Dario Argento” moniker, they focus in on previous experiences – Suspiria, Opera, Inferno – they watch the opening ten minutes with its confusion of intent and a brutal rape sequence – and they think, “no, no, this won’t do!” Dario is known to indulge himself in brutality, to turn it into escapist entertainment. But this is far too difficult to watch. Coupled with poor distribution, especially in the US, and you have real problems.

    It appears that some of us haven’t been able to accept that, for once, Dario isn’t glorifying the violence and offering it up to us as blood soaked entertainment for the gorehounds, he’s actually trying to make a point about the horror of the crime he portrays, and what it can do to the psyche of its victims. We’re simply, especially as Dario Argento fans, ill-prepared for what he serves us. And yet, isn’t that the very beauty of his work?

    There’s simply nothing in the Dario Argento filmography that compares to The Stendhal Syndrome. As a narrative it probably fails, since this is a character study more than anything else. We know the identity of the murderer very early in the film, and indeed, he exits stage left at the half way mark. It’s at this point that every Dario fibre in your cinematic soul is screaming: “But surely the film is over now, but doesn’t it have 55 minutes left to run?”

    Dario hides nothing. But then, it is said that the best place to hide something is in plain view. Anna, in this film, is always in plain view. She never hides what she’s feeling, what she’s heading toward, and whom she really is. The film is not over, because Anna's journey is not complete. Given our history with Dario, we resist it. For once, we have a film about a single character, one powerful enough to sustain almost two hours of our attention.

    Personally, I think I finally get this film, I finally have come to turns with what it is, and what it’s trying to be. I can be at peace with The Stendhal Syndrome and see it anew. I shall no longer fight against it, write disparaging comments about it, or list it among the other films of this period that I feel just a little bit of scorn for. The Stendhal Syndrome shows us that Dario doesn’t just make bloody horror films with over the top violence in them. Instead, he thinks them through, dishes up real intent, and worries us too.

    Extraordinary this. Extraordinary.
     
  5. Paff

    Paff Super Moderator

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    I believe someone has interpreted it to be a "rebirth", based on Botticelli's Venus (a painting Anna sees early in the film). I like that interpretation, as it explains other events in the film. For example, she rises against her attacker, after seeing Michelangelo's David.

    It does take several viewings to take it all in. I thought the concept of the Syndrome was abandoned midway through the film, but I now realize it's there the whole time...Anna is "feeding" through the paintings...taking on more and more characteristics. Which is why she blows a gasket at the end and becomes an incomprehensible mess. Too much "paint", and it loses it's form; it's just a blob of muddy colors.

    You mentioned the issue of blood on a white sheet, but I thought that was introduced on the opening scene where she gets the spot of blood on her white blouse. I view that to mean Anna is a "blank canvas" (hence the white), and the spot of blood is the beginning of her transformation into a work of art. Of course, by "overdosing" on art, she becomes the mess we see at the end of the film.

    I've said a lot of this before, but I like to consider this the concluding film in Argento's "art" trilogy. It's a better trilogy than the so-called "animal" trilogy, which is really only connected through the titles. This is three films with a common theme, that progresses as it goes and wraps it all up with a unifying concept. In Bird With the Crystal Plumage, we have a killer who is affected by seeing a piece of art. In Deep Red, a child is messed up by witnessing a murder, and paints the same piece of art over and over again. In Stendhal, we see BOTH of those things. We see how art affects an unstable individual, and how that unstable individual expresses herself through art.

    I really do think it's Argento's deepest film, most coherent and well-written, as well as being extemely dark and subversive. If you ever listen to the audio commentary on Maniac, Tom Savini starts talking about Stendhal Syndrome, and how shocked and horrified he was. That's telling you something.
     
  6. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    --You mentioned the issue of blood on a white sheet, but I thought that was introduced on the opening scene where she gets the spot of blood on her white blouse.--

    Good catch, you are - of course - correct. I somehow missed that, not sure how.....

    Definately some good points there, and things I hadn't considered in quite the same way. In defense I'll say this - in the past I've had such problems with this film, I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed viewing it last night. On previous viewings I've actually hated it quite strongly. Just goes to show that sometimes you just have to take the time to view, view again, and consciously make sure you leave your thoughts about it behind in order to let it in.

    Without a doubt this is a "different" Argento, a deeper and darker man who had a statement to make. I'm grappling with the theme of the syndrome running through the film, perhaps next time I'll concentrate more strongly on the paintings etc.

    The scene of her painting is pointed, and clearly relevant.
     
  7. jefff

    jefff Guest

    I personally think that this is one of Dario's best films. Defenately my favorite from his post 80's output (tied with Nonhosonno which I also absolutely love). It is at the same time, very different from any of his films prior, and yet also unmistakably Argento. It is a very challenging film, not the "fun ride" that Suspiria is... which is undoubtedly why many people have a problem with it (that and its uncomfortable subject matter). I find it beautiful, haunting, and equally as amazing as many of his other masterpieces. I own the Italian Medusa 2-disc edition (after tossing that shitty Troma disc) and it is undoubtedly the way to go. The picture quality is beautiful, and it allows one to truly appriciate the vivid colors and breathtaking technique Dario put into this film. The Troma disc looks like shit and makes it hard to really appriciate this. The Medusa version also gives you the option of watching the slightly longer Italian cut of the film, which features Asia's true voice and sounds much better than the English dub. An amazing film.
     
  8. The Chaostar

    The Chaostar Johnny Hallyday forever

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    Some thoughts.

    Stendhal's Syndrome is a "mind disease". It's symptoms are dizziness and hallucinations when the sufferer is exposed to paintings and artistic masterpieces. A woman (Asia Argento) enters a museum. She suddenly enters the paintings' worlds in great Argento tradition. She emerges and returns to a hotel room to discover that she has total amnesia.
    Asia's getting up, faces a small painting on the wall and dives into it. Through the painting she discovers her past. She is a policewoman whose mission is to hunt down her rapist.

    Now, art's purpose (among others) is understanding yourself. Getting in touch with your inner child one could say. Through the painting, Asia finds the most important thing: Identity. She has a name, she is Anna Mani. And for that she must pay: A minute afterwards she is brutally raped.

    She and that "inner child" too. And now that she keeps getting closer to it, she discovers that it's not the same anymore. Art keeps pushing her towards it. At first she resists. But later on she embraces it. She starts painting herself. Doctor thinks she's cured, but its exactly the opposite. Through art she surrenders to her madness.

    To take a different turn, what about the family scenes? They seem extremely important, evoking the ghost of Hemmingway at least to my eyes. They have a strange silence, one that you certainly get in disfunctional families. For me, they nail the spot.
     
  9. dwatts

    dwatts New Member

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    Nice thoughts, Chaoster - and fair. Do you think it's fair to say that Stendhal Syndrome generate more discussion/debate than any other of his films - that somehow there is more here than elsewhere in his filmography (not putting his other films down). I just can't imagine this much debate over Trauma or Suspiria - you know?
     

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