I have to admit that, upon completion of my first viewing of Dario Argento’s “The Stendhal Syndrome” several years ago, I was a bit conflicted. I’d just seen the wonderfully stylish and clever “Opera” for the first time, and there was just something about Argento’s then-new film that irked me. It didn’t seem to have the visual panache, inventiveness, or visceral thrills and chills of the maestro’s previous works. Given time, however, and after many repeated viewings, The Stendhal Syndrome really started to grow on me. I realized that, while it would never be in the same league as Argento classics like “Suspiria” or “Profondo Rosso”, The Stendhal Syndrome was an equally important film in the director’s canon as it served as a complete departure from the horror sub-genres upon which the director had made his name.
Asia Argento stars as Ana Mani, a Rome police detective working the case of a serial rapist who has recently escalated to murder. Following a tip that leads her to a Florence art museum, Ana finds herself overcome by the power of the artwork on display, and collapses. When she comes around, she’s suffering from a bout of amnesia, and can’t remember who or where she is. With the help of a seemingly friendly bystander, though, Ana finds her way back to her hotel, whereupon she has another “incident”, as she falls under the spell of a painting hanging in her room. Ana snaps out of her trance only to discover that the genteel stranger who helped her earlier that day is now in her room, and is the man she was sent to Florence to find. Ana is beaten and raped and, in a deviation from his normal routine, the killer takes her along to serve as a witness to another rape/murder he commits later that evening. Ana escapes, eventually, but the scars of the ordeal are evident, as she begins to desexualize herself by lopping off her hair and wearing shapeless, unattractive clothing. She becomes obsessed with catching the man who raped her, but there’s something else at work, as well; a deep, simmering rage that’s welling within her, blurring the line between perpetrator and victim. As Ana loses herself to the case, those around her fear she may be losing her mind, as well, and, the closer she gets to catching the killer, the more of the old Ana she leaves behind.
The Stendhal Syndrome is equal parts crime thriller and equal parts character study, with a strong focus on Ana’s personal struggle with her ordeal, and the ways in which she chooses to “deal” with it. The rapist and his crimes take a backseat to Ana’s story, and Asia Argento really shines in the role. It’s quite the deviation from the norm for Argento (who is notoriously disenchanted with actors) to let a film be carried by performers rather than murder set pieces and shocks. Of course, seeing as how the star is his own daughter (and some say his muse), it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, the closest Argento had come to an actor-driven film prior to Stendhal was with the unfairly maligned “Trauma”, which was also top-billed by Asia. The contemptuous relationship between father and daughter seems to play out on the screen, and, whether or not it’s a healthy experiment, one can’t deny that the results are there.
Thomas Kretschmann’s demented Alfredo Grossi serves as one of Argento’s most memorable antagonists, and also turns in a convincingly menacing performance, although the rest of the characterts are as wooden and one-dimensional as your typical collection of supporting players in an Argento film (of course, the dubbing never helps matters any).
Stendhal isn’t all pathos and fury, however, as there are a few “gross out” moments displaying an occasional flash of Argento’s stylishly sinister side. Sadly, most of these scenes are marred by some truly shoddy CGI work that, aside from looking cheap, feels completely out of place and is employed rather gratuitously.
I liken the way I feel about The Stendhal Syndrome to the way I felt about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. At first, I was confused and incredibly disappointed by that film, but, for some reason, I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and found myself watching it over and over, discovering something new and endearing about it every time. That pretty much sums up my experience with The Stendhal Syndrome; a film that, much like its twisted protagonist, simply won’t take no for an answer.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Blue Underground offers The Stendhal Syndrome in a wonderfully detailed HD transfer that, while retaining much of the film’s cinematic grain, looks sharper and more vibrant than ever before. Subtleties like the weave of the canvas on the paintings and the dimples and pores of statues are presented with remarkable clarity, while depth and dimension are enhanced by rich and luxurious blacks. The image really jumps off the screen, here, especially during the darker sequences, such as those set in Alfredo’s candlelit subterranean hideout, and, early on, in Ana’s hotel room. Being that this is one of Argento’s “flatter” looking films, I was really taken aback by how well it looks on Blu-ray, and it’s given me yet another level of newfound appreciation for this film.
Blue Underground once again includes a smorgasbord of audio offerings, including a 7.1 DTS-HD (English Only) track, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD (English Only) track, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX track. Dialogue is mixed front and center, with crisp spatial effects servicing the surrounds. Bass is rich and robust, but never overpowering. Fans of Argento films know that music plays a huge part in setting the tone for his movies, and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score has never sounded better. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to hear Goblin’s “Suspiria” score in HD audio!
Extras for The Stendhal Syndrome are carryovers from Blue Underground’s recent DVD release of the title, and feature interviews with Argento; special effects artist, Sergio Stivaletti; assistant director, Luigi Cozzi, and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Also featured is an interview with psychologist, Graziella Magherini, focusing on the actual Stendhal Syndrome and cases that influenced the film. Rounding out the extras is the film’s theatrical trailer.
While certainly not Dario Argento’s finest film, The Stendhal Syndrome is one of his most intriguing, especially in terms of premise and execution. Asia Argento turns in what is arguably her finest performance as the tortured Ana, despite the fact that she still looks stunning, even when outfitted in loose flannel and a boy’s haircut. Blue Underground delivers the film in a class package that looks and sounds terrific, and features enough extras to keep fans entertained long after the movie’s over. For Argento fans, this is an absolute must-buy.