The Stendhal Syndrome Review
Here we have Dario Argento re-invent a thriller and suspense ride in a way only he can. For a mid 90's film, it already feels dated and quite aged but for fans of his rather macabre style of film-making it matters little. For those not au fait with his works this one could prove a difficult first foray.
In the year 1817 a French writer by the name of Stendhal visited Florence. Whilst admiring the many works of art he became completely overwhelmed by the experience of it all. A strange illness and feeling of nausea enveloped him drawing him ever further into the surreal world of art all around him. The illness akin to a form of insanity came to later be known as the Stendhal Syndrome.
Returning to the more modern day city, Florence remains as beautiful as ever it was. A detective by the name of Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is on the trail of a murdering Italian rapist that leads her to the Uffizi Art Gallery. It's here at the gallery where she similarly becomes engrossed by the many works of art all around her and especially by the paintings. She becomes highly traumatised and falls deeply into them, dreaming the meaning of the paintings through the artist's eyes. She doesn't realise it but she too suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome.
Now you must be warned early on that this is nothing like the usual type of thriller that you maybe expecting. Dario Argento wastes no time in introducing you to the killer central to it all, Alfredo played by Thomas Kretschmann. When Anna faints in the gallery he creeps over to help her up. You immediately know that it's going to be him. It's not long after that he follows her to find out where she lives in order to rape and torture her. As I say Argento wastes no time and gets this over and done with, the suspense aspect is gone right from the start. However suspense is not what this film is actually all about. Essentially it concentrates on the torment and terror left within Anna and how she tries to reconcile with the onset of insanity whilst having to track him down again.
Wondering why she was left alive and how she will ever find him again leads her to a series of stress breakdowns. Whilst not a complete mental block, she certainly loses her grip and comprehension of the real world around her. This is after all the Stendhal Syndrome and Argento uses his artistic flair in order to merge the worlds of the current and that drawn of the art into one. It's an interesting premise melting into paintings, walking through and into them in order to live there meaning; from drowning to being saved by weird fish and to walking into crime scenes. Yes it's a bizarrely eclectic mix on offer here, best described as a dreamy vision of Argento's core strengths and a cross-stitch of bringing them together in a mix of insanity.
In general Argento fans will find this more difficult going than his norm. Non-Argento fans will have to focus even harder. The movie finds it difficult to flow and each successive scene doesn't easily or naturally follow on. In many ways the film is broken up into a number of acts and it's quite difficult to identify the lines of differentiation between them. I was hard pressed to do so as I'm sure you will be too. For example as Anna's syndrome gets a hold of her she decides to cut her dark hair very short leading then to eventually start donning herself a blonde wig. It's all very confusing. It makes you wonder why the progressive disorder of the film is paralleled to her enhanced state of mind. At the same time it also doesn't make any sense at all.
As Anna tries to piece the murders and the victims, her ability to transcend into art allows her to re-visit the crime scenes in a very sixth sense of manner. She manages to picture each of the deaths and how Alfredo went about attacking and killing his victims. Pulling together the jigsaw in her mind she visualises herself as an onlooker at each of the crimes. What Argento tries to portray here is that in order to catch a killer you have to think like one. It's a disturbing spiral of Anna Manni into the depths of the mind of a sick and twisted murderer.
The brutal deaths and killings of each of the raped victims are Dario Argento, through and through. He does what he does and he's rather good at it. Although, this time around the gore is in someway accompanied by a greater sense of terror. Each of the victims is killed in a cruel and sadistic fashion and it's enough to make you squirm. Different strokes for different folks and it's very much a case of whatever turns you on. Razor blades in the mouth, being raped and shot through the face and a whole manner of other disturbingly torturous deaths will leave you with a feel of appal. I must say I was not shocked by it all simply because the way this film works is that it feeds you each scene very much as read. The whole thing leaves you very detached from the severity of the crime that you are witnessing. Strange but true.
The CGI feels very dated and experimental for a 90's film but it does in many ways still feel very right. Don't get me wrong it's pretty awful and cringe worthy by today's standards and it probably wasn't great for back then either. Let's put it this way, it merely serves its purpose. However, whilst there's nothing here to visually astound you there is plenty enough to confound you.
What I found most frustrating with this film is that it lost its sense of purpose about half way through. The effects of the Stendhal Syndrome are all but lost about a third into the movie and it becomes a caricature of set acts after that. Creditably it does regain some ground to come to a conclusion though I'm not sure it's going be a satisfying one for all viewers. At least that's what my view of it all was.
Ardent Argento fans still regard this as some of his better mid-90's work. I personally wouldn't describe it as that. The movie is worth a watch to see what it's all about but it could have done with having 30-40 minutes shaved off it for it to truly hit home. I can't really elaborate any further on the film as it's quite a difficult movie to get across. Its value is however in what you as a viewer make of the experience and how you absorb each scene. The experience will have a different effect on different people for sure and that will of course consequently affect what you think of it all. The Stendhal Syndrome is worth a view for experimental purposes if not for anything else.