Assistant Inspector Anna Manni (Asia Argento), a detective with Rome's anti-rape unit, is on the trail of a vicious serial rapist and killer in Florence, when she herself is targeted and raped by her quarry. Anna suffers from a bizarre affliction (the Stendhal Syndrome) which causes her to experience disturbing hallucinations and fainting fits whenever confronted with great works of art -- a fact which her attacker discovers and quickly exploits to his advantage. Instead of killing her, as he usually does after abusing his victims, he holds her prisoner and makes her a witness to his horrific crimes. Although Anna eventually manages to escape, she is terribly traumatised by the experience, prone to self-harm and odd changes in personality. With the killer still on the loose, she takes leave from work and travels back to her home town to recuperate. But Anna cannot shake the terrible mental scars left by the memory of her attack. This, and her Stendhal Syndrome affliction, combine to undermine her sense of identity and yield an unwanted mental connection with the rapist; and although it may eventually help to capture him, it could also have awful consequences for her sanity.
"The Stendhal Syndrome" saw Dario Argento returning to Italy after his abortive stint in the U.S. during the early nineties, which had resulted in two rather underrated efforts: "Two Evil Eyes" (Italian produced -- but set and filmed in Pittsburgh, USA) and the Italian/American co-production, "Trauma" shot in Minneapolis. By all accounts, Argento's post-production experience on "Trauma" was not that enjoyable, and in any case, the film wasn't particularly well received by fans, largely because of its perceived Americanisation, although it has since found a few passionate defenders (a pattern that has become all too familiar in Argento's work from the early nineties to the present day). The director reacted by adapting a story (based on a novel: the first time Argento had adapted someone else's story for one of his films, at this stage) that places the artistic heritage of his native land at its very core, swapping the cold grey vistas of Minneapolis for the deceptively picturesque old-world charm of Florence & Rome. With a budget of only $3.5 million, "The Stendhal Syndrome" was the lowest budgeted movie Argento had yet produced, a fact which only added to the perception by many that his career was now in a terminal state of decline. The film itself was considered a perplexing oddity upon its release -- but time has actually been extremely kind to it: these days it feels like one of Argento's boldest and most original works, a minor masterpiece which hasn't been equaled in intensity since by the director.
Dario Argento's reputation as a cinematic stylist comes at the cost of his work often being perceived as an embodiment of the "style over substance" equation. This wasn't always entirely fair as, like Mario Bava - the great Italian master from whom Argento inherited his mantle - the director used his technical wizardry, kinetic mobile camera-work and baroque visual style to infuse his works with the psychological underpinnings their screenplays often lacked on the surface (more a case of substance through style than style over substance). It was true though that many of the characters in the films from the director's "golden period" (with the possible exception of David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in "Profondo Rosso") came across as mere ciphers: sketchily written puppets to be manipulated in the edit rather than well-rounded creations with a believable psychological depth written into them from the beginning. But this began to change in the nineties with "The Black Cat" -- Dario's segment of "Two Evil Eyes" (his collaboration with George A. Romero) -- which was a pure character study: allowing star, Harvey Keitel free rein with his show-stopping portrayal of madness and mental breakdown.
The film broke totally new ground for Argento; although it still featured the director's usual innovative camera shots, it was Keitel's performance which was at the heart of the film and gave the story its momentum. Argento's next project, "Trauma" was in many ways a traditional giallo thriller -- with all the irrational plotting that the genre entails -- but it was noticeable that the characters (particularly the two leads played by Asia Argento and Christopher Rydell) were endowed with more depth than usual, suggesting that the director was becoming more interested in scripting roles which could be explored and fleshed out by the actors since his experience working with Keitel. "The Stendhal Syndrome" represents the culmination of this trend (subsequent works "The Phantom Of The Opera" and "Non Ho Sonno" have a more ironic, tongue-in-cheek tone to them) and is easily the director's most satisfying piece of work since 1987's "Opera."
The film exhibits some unusual story construction, which sees Argento dispensing with the usual giallo structure of most of his previous thrillers in favour of a rich blend of symbolic hallucination and flashback, which helps develop the character of the film's protagonist, Anna Manni (played with unsettling conviction by his daughter Asia). These surrealistic narrative devices are as much concerned with exposing the character's inner-demons as they are in providing the viewer with their expected fix of the director's customary ultra-stylish visual imagination. Asia Argento gives her best ever performance before or since in a challenging role any accomplished actor would kill for; and proves that, with the right material, she is capable of great things. The screenplay (co-written by the director's frequent collaborator Franco Ferini) builds on the director's new-found concern with characterisation: exploring the lead character's relationships with family and colleagues, and charting the transformations she goes through with forensic proficiency.
The result lends the film a seriousness of tone that is rarely evident even in Argento's best work. Thomas Kretschmann (later to be known by a wider audience for his brief but memorable role in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist") gives the film's second amazingly intense performance as the psychotic rapist and killer, Alfredo. We don't learn much about what made him the character he becomes, but there is no doubt that Kretschmann gives one of the most unsetting on-screen portrayals of deranged evil ever, apparently inspired by a reading of Bret Eastern Ellis's "American Psycho"! Argento gives Kretschmann and Asia centre stage and they both deliver powerful, affecting performances which the director is then able to amplify through some of his characteristically imaginative set-pieces, incorporating audaciously unrealistic CGI effects to bring a garnish of the fantastical to otherwise brutal and gritty material.
"The Stendhal Syndrome" belongs among Dario Argento's most revered works but has suffered from poor quality releases in the past which were either cut, pan & scanned, or featured muddy transfers. This release from Arrow films offers a mainly lovely transfer with only a few instances of swarming grain in darker sequences to marr it. The English 5.0 Surround Sound audio track and the Italian 5.0 Surround Sound audio track are both included, the latter featuring the option of English subtitles. Although the English option seems to feature a more naunced mix, with far more ambient noise included in the mix, the Italian audio features Asia's own voice, and subsequently her perfomance comes across better in this version. It should be noted that Arrow have sourced the slightly longer Italian print for this release, featuring two short scenes not included in the English edit. These are shown in Italian with English subtitles when you watch with the English audio track.
One of Dario Argento's most pessimistic and profoundly dark visions, the film has grown in reputation over the years and now deserves to be included in his gallery of all time greats. This is a respectable looking release from Arrow Films and comes with the UK cult label's usual complement of packaging extras: a glossy colour booklet written by Alan Jones, a double-sided sleeve featuring Rick Melton's gaudy new portrait of Asia Argento on one side (she looks more like she does now in films like "Boarding Gate", than she did when she actually made "The Stendhal Syndrome") and the original DVD artwork on the other side. You also get a free poster. The disc features a pleasing Argento trailer reel and the theatrical trailer for "The Stendhal Syndrome" which features brief shots of nudity not in the film.
Anyone buying this release needs to be aware of the following statement released by Arrow Video last week:
It has been brought to the attention of Arrow Video that incorrectly manufactured stock of The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player has been released onto the market. The one fault on both discs is the absence of English subtitles. This will not affect the enjoyment of fans who prefer the English dubs and otherwise the discs are as intended but for those of you who like to select the Italian tracks and don't have a grasp of the language you may find the English subtitles beneficial!
This is of course extremely annoying and Arrow Video would like to offer their apologies to all fans for the inconvenience this may cause.
If you don't need English subtitles your disc is fine but for those of you who are affected please hang onto the DVD packaging and poster and booklet inserts and post the DISC ONLY back to:
Arrow Video Returns
Porters Park Drive
Arrow Video will mail back to you a correct replacement disc plus a bonus DVD to apologise for the inconvenience. Please ensure that you enclose a copy of your full name, address and postcode.
Please send any queries to - firstname.lastname@example.org
New procedures are now being put in place to try to ensure there's not a repeat of this!