Review Date: August 30, 2007
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 09/25/2007
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
To put it simply, Dario Argento is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. The fact that scholars affix “horror” before “filmmaker” slights what has always been a very mature and outreaching body of work. His movies are about more than violence, tapping into broader realms like art, psychology and celebrity. Opera
isn’t just a slasher, it’s a dialectic with the audience on voyeurism, showing violence and simultaneously questioning why we crave it. I love the intellectual depth he brings to the genre, and while I’ve seen virtually everything else he’d made, The Stendhal Syndrome
was the one title that eluded me. It pained me, too, since it is generally heralded as his most mature work. It’s not that I couldn’t find it – I’d owned the Troma disc for years; I just could not see the film in such a compromised vision. This was Argento, and this was supposed to be his last masterpiece…the transfer needed to do the man justice. So now finally, after years and years of waiting, there is finally a suitable Region 1 version available for viewing, Blue Underground’s new two-disc. I’m not wasting anymore time writing, I’m going to watch it now. Finally.
Anna Manni ([i]Asia Argento) walks through a crowded art museum, where beautiful sculptures and paintings from Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Caravaggio fill the scenery. So beautiful, and so powerful in their message, they overwhelm Anna. She sees into them, their vision more lucid than even reality. She gets dizzy. It’s overpowering. She faints. That’s the Stendhal Syndrome, a case of a viewer of art so overwhelmed by the imagery that s/he is unable to retain consciousness. Anna has a lot more going on in her mind too, though. She’s a policewoman working for a rape squad, and she’s been tipped that Rome’s most notorious rapist and serial killer is inside the museum as well. Sure enough, he is, and shortly after she comes to, she’s viciously raped by the man she was stalking.
Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann
) looks like a good person, indeed he was confused for one when he returned Anna’s purse to her after she fainted. Lurking behind that slick blonde hair and confident smile is a misogynist bent on dominating women to contribute to his own narcissism. He often talks nice to his victims, courts them, and then rapes them, tying them up and then after he is finished, putting a bullet through each side of their cheeks. He demeans his victims, sucking the life out of them much like the paintings do to Anna. She’s a confident woman, but the rape scars her, leaving her wanting vengeance, and worse, to fill the dead spots he left inside her.
Anna cuts off all her hair, to which her brother remarks she looks like a boy, and sets out to trap Alfredo once and for all. In the pursuit though, she slowly starts to morph into what she is hunting. She sees a psychiatrist and tries to use painting as catharsis for the issues she is dealing with, but she ends up only painting the pain that Alfredo inflicts. She never wants to be dominated like that again, but killing him won’t be enough. If she can be him, no man will ever violate her like that again, right?
“Physical pain doesn’t bother me…it makes me feel alive.”
Anna says this in the film, but it may as well bare Dario’s name beside it. The Stendhal Syndrome
is a fascinating catharsis for a man who has reveled in violence in his art for his entire career. Argento has never used violence for mere entertainment, he’s always played with it like a child a dead bird, flipping it over to see the death that we all subconsciously fear. He stylizes it, slows it down and examines every facet of pain, hoping that in his images he can find art, something that will lessen our collective fears of death. The fatal car crash slowed down and played five times over in Four Flies on Grey Velvet
was a start, and Opera
’s slow motion head wound (where the bullet ricochets later through a telephone in the room) shows Argento forever holding violence under a microscope to truly discover its power. Here he takes violence to its stylized limits, literally making it microscopic with CG shots of bullets going through the flesh or pills dropping down a throat. Physical pain doesn’t bother Argento, no, it is the psychology that drives him mad.
With The Stendhal Syndrome
, Argento shows that art can exhibit great power both for its maker and its audience. These are themes he’s touched on before, like with Tenebre
, questioning the role of the artist and his responsibilities when showing violence to the public. Here though, he internalizes it. This is about what art can do to the individual, not the society as a whole. He gets into the psychology of Anna, with her bouts with the shrink and even moreso with her artistic hallucinations. When in one dream she is raped by a portrait with a huge phallus, we as a viewer are reminded what true psychological horror is, and it is not the childish moral games of the Saw
franchise. To her art is overwhelming, but her painting, both on the paper and at one point even her body, help her deal with the demons that haunt her mind. They don’t help her much, mind you, but still, it’s progress.
Argento shows great progress himself with The Stendhal Syndrome
too, expanding his theories on violence in the movies to much grander statements about art and psychology as a whole. It’s not the pain of the flesh that’s the problem, it’s the demons it can instill in the mind thereafter. He offers a compassionate, sad and often brutal character portrait, severing most ties to the conventional giallo format he made and preached, this time truly devoted to character rather than plot. When the main killer stops being a plot device an hour in, Argento proves that he’s not just about making gialli, but instead about exploring the impact violence can have on its victims.
Anna’s harrowing change from being the victim to the victimizer is done with amazing skill, illustrated by Argento through various skillful pieces of mise en scene. Paintings are rife with thousands of motifs and symbols, and so too is The Stendhal Syndrome
, his most academic film. Her name hints at her transformation, Anna Man
ni, and so too does her later courting of a Frenchman with the very feminine designation of Marie. The obvious signs are there too, she first cuts her hair to a boy’s length, and then later wears a blonde wig to match the hair color of her culprit’s.
Since this is a film about art though, how threatening, powerful and cathartic it can be, the metaphor that resonates most is a snow globe of Michelangelo’s David. The camera lingers longer than usual on it at seemingly random points in the movie, and slowly Anna begins to fixate her gaze on it as well. There it is, the ultimate figure of man in full exposure, both proud and nakedly vulnerable, and in it Anna can see herself what she wants to be and also the fragile specimen she currently is. The flakes that cover his body when the globe is shook, symbolize the chaos in her own life, but also speak broadly about art in general. That image returns Argento to his roots, with David becoming a literal abstraction, just like the elusive grainy photo in Antonioni’s Blowup
that inspired Argento for his very first film. The abstraction of art shows to us the power of the mind, how we fill in gaps and make associations to better help us understand our existence. Anna wants clarity in life and in art, but everywhere is abstraction. That is the film’s greatest tragedy.
Blue Underground presents the film in a stunning 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Compared to the dark and muddy Troma release, which was the only way to see this Region 1 before, this is a godsend. The Troma DVD crushed the blacks to the point where large portions of detail were lost in the shadows or even Asia’s longflowing black hair. That all comes through here with clarity, and this new transfer is comparable to the two solid Region 2 transfers from Medusa and Arrow. Medusa’s print, while clear, was too blue for my liking, but Arrow’s was mostly spot on. Blue Underground’s transfer is at times a little redder than it should be, made most obvious by the pinkish walls during the opening art scene. Still, other than Arrow’s transfer, this is the best of the lot, and it benefits from better window boxing than the Arrow disc (the bottom of the frame there had a scanline that could be seen in projection). There’s a bit of grain present throughout, probably a little more than one would expect, but the detail is there and overall clarity is a big improvement over the Troma release. If you already have the Arrow disc then there’s no huge leap in quality to warrant an upgrade, but if you’ve been holding out for a good release for as long as I have, this version will be all you need.
As nice as the image is, the DTS and Dolby Digital surround tracks here are by comparison a disappointment. There is hardly any directionality to the sound, with all dialogue stuck up front and centered between the speakers. The few ambient noises that do make it to the back plane, people talking in a museum, wind blowing in the background, all sound totally alien to the rest of the film and distractingly out of place. These added sounds don’t help immerse us in the story, on the contrary, they take us out. I’m usually a fan of Blue Underground’s audio remixes, but this is definitely one of their weaker efforts. The track is clean and sounds perfectly crisp though, so no points docked there. Still, if you are going to watch this, watch it in the Dolby Surround 2.0 track, and watch it in Italian.
The back of the box advertises this as the first time the film has been completely uncut and uncensored, and while I don’t have all the other versions to corroborate, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. What they are probably talking about, though, are the two short, subtitled dialogue scenes that are included (like Deep Red
-lite). One is pretty disposable, but the other is a pretty harrowing scene of a man crying about his daughter’s death, asking if Anna could tell her what his daughter was feeling before she died. A big emotional scene isn’t really what horror fans clamor for when the word “uncut” is written, but truth be told, this is one of the better lost additions to a film I’ve seen in a long while. Before that point, there’s that hint of possible Argento misogyny, especially after a woman tries to lure a man into a junk yard to have sex “where the whores do”, but this little scene demonstrates the compassion Argento holds for his characters and situations.
As for extras, there is only a trailer on the first disc, but since there are so many audio tracks (five in total) this is understandable. The extras on the second disc consist of five featurettes done by the dependable David Gregory. The first and best is with Argento, and it runs 22-minutes. He talks about how his stint in America was a waste of time, and how Stendhal was a breath of fresh air. He researched it plenty, and talks about the syndrome and how it has effected him personally (at the Parthenon, no less!). He then concludes saying it is a favorite of his films. Next up is an interview with Graziella Magherini, whose writing on the titular syndrome was what drove Argento to make the film. She also served as a creative consultant as well, but spends her time in this 22-minute featurette talking about her studies on the syndrome, stating various cases and the effects it has had on people. It’s a little dry, and bordering on Amityville-unbelievable, but still a good watch.
The last three featurettes, all running between 16-22 minutes, are with other members of the production team. Special Effects man Sergio Stivaletti talks about making the jump to digital effects after serving as Argento’s traditional effects guy ever since Phenomena. He details the process of the bullet shot quite well, with some nice supporting footage, and surprises when he says that it was actually an influence to the effects team behind The Matrix. Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, who worked on several pictures for Fellini, describes the art of scenery, and shares some nice observations on Argento, cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno and on his interpretations of the looks of several scenes. He’s a smart guy, and this is a lot more involving and entertaining than it would first seem. The last is with Assistant Director Luigi Cozzi, and is surprisingly the best of the bunch.
Cozzi talks about how he started as a journalist and was the first to interview Argento as a director. This led to him writing Four Flies on Grey Velvet
and to collaborating with Dario on several other fronts, like special effects and assistant directing. He even had a distinguished stint as a giallo director, too. The real goods though, are Cozzi detailing Argento’s involvement with The Five Days of Milan and more importantly the ever pertinent rights issue over Four Flies. He finally comes clean about the problem, and it is a must see for any Argento fan. He talks about a horror emporium he and Dario made that still exists to this day in Italy. There are so many other fascinating tidbits to come from Cozzi, he needs to write a book.
The Stendhal Syndrome
is Argento’s most mature film, taking the surreal elements of Suspiria
and the giallo genre tropes from films like Deep Red
and fusing them into one mean character study and statement on the arts. The brutal story can be appreciated on its own, but the deeper you look into it, the better it gets. The image quality is a major step up from the Troma release, and stands basically head to head with Arrow’s Region 2 release as best version of the film on digital. The remixed soundtrack sounds phony and not entirely engulfing, but the source material is at least very clean. The interviews are all interesting, and with over an hour with them, you’ll get your money’s worth of great facts, including why Four Flies on Grey Velvet
still isn’t released on DVD. Seeing this, we now know what modern film Argento has to live up to with The Three Mothers.
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 59 minutes
- Rated R
- 2 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS 6.1 ES
- English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
- Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
- English Dolby Digital Surround 2.0
- Italian Dolby Digital Surround 2.0
- English subtitles
- Theatrical trailer
- Interviews with Dario Argento, Psychologist Graziella Magherini, Special Effects man Sergio Stivaletti, AD Luigi Cozzi, and Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng