Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi
Directed by Dario Argento
Distributed by Arrow Video
The 1990s are widely regarded as the decade during which Dario Argento “lost it”, producing consistently ill-received output such as Trauma and the ridiculous The Phantom of the Opera. Many also forget, however, that this period – 1996, to be exact – found the release of one of his strongest works in The Stendhal Syndrome.
Asia Argento stars as Italian police offer Anna Mari. Having been packed off to Florence to track down a serial rapist and murderer, she finds herself roaming the halls of the Uffizi Gallery only to enter into a hallucinatory daze while staring at Brueghel’s “The Flight of Icarus”. This is the effect of the real-world “Stendhal Syndrome” – certain individuals find themselves so deeply affected by works of art they can hallucinate, faint, or worse.
As she falls into an imaginary ocean, her real-world self falls face first into a table and obtains a rather nasty lip injury and case of spontaneous amnesia. A nearby gentleman, Alfredo, helps her to her feet and packs her off to her hotel.
This is just the beginning of the film, and only the beginning of the nightmares Anna will face. The rapist knows who she is, and he knows of her affliction. Using it against her, he traps her at her most vulnerable and subjects her to repeated attacks. Consequently, Anna’s grip on both herself and the world around her begins to slip until she can finally turn the tables on the villain – but even after her escape, is he really dead?
The description may sound a little awkward; however, this is necessary so as not to spoil the story Argento has crafted here. While the most impressive of his older work has been so due to the visual artistry involved – the impressive sets, daring lighting and sweeping camerawork – The Stendhal Syndrome is a much more character focused affair, an intimate foray into the depths of abuse, personal violation, degradation of character and madness. That’s not to say that the director isn’t visually on form. His camera is nowhere near as active as one would expect, but effects shots involving Anna literally stepping into paintings are successful, satisfying and somewhat beautiful (though being the early days of CGI, some other visual effects shots are laughable). Asia’s performance expertly delivers the vulnerable position in which being trapped in these vistas places her.
Thomas Kretschmann is perfect in the role of the sadistic abuser. His bleached blonde hair, statuesque physique and slimy, misogynistic demeanour all come together to create one of the most vile and vicious killers to grace any of Argento’s frames.
Dario eschews the varied, pulsing lighting of his giallo efforts in favour of a more realistic view of Florence and Rome – he wants the audience to know that this piece is taking place very much in the real world, that there’s nothing fantastical in this tale of horror. This, in turn, aids in making The Stendhal Syndrome one of his most savage and cruel works. While methodically paced and definitely a slow-burner, it is also nasty, relentless and unforgiving as Ennio Morricone’s excellent score crawls its way under your skin. The deaths are generally lacking in creativity, but Dario does grace us with a few moments of greatness such as tracking a bullet through the face of a victim or some extremely uncomfortable oral play with a razor blade. Here, the deaths are not the point though…in fact the biggest failure is actually when the film falls into giallo territory with a late scene from the killer’s point of view. We already know who the killer is; yet, his dialogue is replaced by an incomprehensible warble as if we should be surprised by who it is. It’s an unnecessary addition that stands out, reeking of a lack of confidence when the director has already been performing so admirably with a new approach.
While it does lose a certain amount of steam towards the end and doesn’t finish up as well as it could (hell, what Argento film does?), The Stendhal Syndrome is an excellent piece of work. If you’re an Argento fan, get out and grab it. If you’re not but haven’t yet caught this excursion out of giallo territory…what are you waiting for?
Arrow’s presentation is up to their usual high visual and aural standard with both English and Italian 5.1 audio tracks included on the disc. In terms of special features, the disc itself features only a trailer for The Stendhal Syndrome and a Dario Argento trailer reel. Inside the box, though, we get a fold-out poster of Rick Melton’s amazing new artwork and a collector’s booklet written by Argento expert (and Frightfest co-founder) Alan Jones, which is a brief but pleasurable read.
- Feature Trailer
- Dario Argento Trailer Reel
- Artwork Poster
- Collector’s Booklet
4 1/2 out of 5
1 1/2 out of 5
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