After finishing up Trauma and his half of Two Evil Eyes, Dario Argento returned to his native Italy to shoot The Stendhal Syndrome, once again starring his daughter (and future Maxim Magazine 'Sexiest Woman Alive') Asia Argento who would soon become popular in North America for her starring role alongside Vin Diesel in XXX.
The film follows a young female detective named Anna Marin (Asia Argento) who works primarily on rape cases. She's been trailing a serial rapist for some time now and when she winds up in Florence and finds out he may be in town, she sets up a meeting with an informant in hopes that she'll get the information she needs to stop the fiend. They pair meet at an art gallery but upon entering the building, Anna becomes overwhelmed by the paintings which soon swirl around her and cause her to fall down and knock her head.
When Anna wakes up, she is completely unaware of where she is or how she got there and is obviously not so trusting of the man named Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann) who appears to only be trying to help her. She heads back to her hotel but later that night runs into Alfredo again, who turns out to be the rapist she's been pursuing for some time now. He turns his sights on her and brutally rapes her but she manages to escape before he can kill her. With the symptoms of the Stendhal Syndrome kicking in and the emotional, physical and mental pain Alfredo has inflicted on her, Anna has to track him down and stop him from doing it again before he finds her and silences her permanently.
Based around a unique but completely real psychosomatic condition (named after a French author) which causes dizziness or fainting when those afflicted with it are exposed to an overwhelming amount of art, The Stendhal Syndrome is one of Dario Argento's more psychologically layered films. The film deals not only with what we see happen literally and chronologically on the screen but it also delves into Anna's own guilt and the psychological ramifications of her experiences at the hands of Alfredo. The controversial rape scene, a disturbing moment by its very nature, is made even more unsettling when you consider that the director has cast his own flesh and blood to play the victim, though Asia handles the role particularly well and is actually very believable even if she looks a little young to be a police detective.
The pacing of the film is a little different than most pictures but that's not necessarily a bad thing. By placing the nastiest set piece in the middle of the movie Argento leaves us wondering if he's going to try and top it or not by the end of the film. It's actually a rather clever way to create suspense and it works in the movie's favor even if those hoping for a gore-soaked conclusion might be left disappointed. Adding to the tone of the movie considerably is the original score from Ennio Morricone. While Morricone had scored Argento's first three giallos (Cat O' Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) the pair had not worked together since the early seventies. Morricone's compositions really do a fantastic job of making the scenes where Anna's disorder kicks in all the more hallucinatory and they also play a large part in the success of the more tense murder set pieces and suspense sequences in the picture. The movie also does a really good job of making us think about the relationship between a work of art and someone attempting to discern it, the film itself working on much the same level as the paintings which envelope and ultimately confuse Anna so much.
With all of that said, the picture isn't perfect, particularly in its English version. The dubbing is goofy and not all of the translations come across very well. As mentioned, Asia's not a bad actress at all but she definitely looks too young for the lead role and this does hamper things a tad. A couple of head scratching logic gaps don't help things much either and the CGI used for a few scenes, at the time very much in its infancy as a viable medium, haven't aged well.
Despite those flaws, however, The Stendhal Syndrome gets enough right that it's very definitely worth a look. The premise itself is a very interesting one and the script does a pretty good job of exploiting that unique condition that the film is named after. Argento's direction is slick and the cinematography, as dark as it is, really is quite effective. Add to that a couple of memorable set pieces and some gorgeous location shooting and it's easy to see how the pluses certainly outweigh the minuses making this film a great choice for horror fans who don't mind thinking outside the box.
Blue Underground's 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Stendhal Syndrome is truly a thing of beauty. Color reproduction is dead on, black levels are strong throughout and print damage is nowhere to be seen. Some very fine grain is noticeable if you want to look for it, as it should be, but the picture is very clean, sharp and detailed throughout. Edge enhancement is never a problem and neither are mpeg compression artifacts. Some very slight shimmering pops up here and there but if you're not looking for it, odds are you're not going to notice it in the first place. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and sharpness and contrast are dead on. Previously available in North America only by way of the ugly, muddy horrible Troma DVD, Blue Underground's new transfer is a revelation and it presents the film in a transfer that really does the quirky visual style justice.
The Stendhal Syndrome is awarded five different audio tracks: English language DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound, English or Italian language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and English or Italian language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with optional subtitles provided in English only.
Those with the hardware to handle it should check out the English DTS mix as it really pumps during a few of the more intense scenes. That said, the film plays differently in Italian, making the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in that language an attractive option as well. Regardless of which mix you decide on, rest assured there are no problems to report. Dialogue is clean and clear and not one of the five options shows any evidence of hiss or distortion. Levels are balanced nicely across the board and the English subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors. It should be noted that there are few scenes which were never dubbed into English and when those scenes appear, if you're watching it with one of the three English tracks selected, the film will briefly revert to Italian and English subtitles will automatically appear on screen and then automatically disappear once the audio reverts back to English.
The first disc contains only animated menus, chapter stops and the film's English language theatrical trailer and given the fact that there are five audio tracks on the disc, that's probably a good thing as loading it up with much more would have likely resulted in some ugly compression problems.
Thankfully, Blue Underground has included a second disc and loaded it with a series of interviews (each of which is conducted in Italian and includes English subtitles), the first of which, entitled The Director (19:57), focuses in on Dario Argento himself. In this piece, Argento discusses how at this point in his career it was important that he go back to making films in Italy and where this film lies in his filmography in terms of what it means to him and where many of the ideas for the film came from. Some interesting behind the scenes footage is included here, cut in amongst the newly shoot interview clips. The second interview, The Inspiration: Psychological Consultant (20:40), is an interview with Graziella Magherini, the psychiatrist who actually named the condition, who lends some truly interesting insight into studies that she's conducted on the unique illness. She explains how it effects people and gives a brief history of the condition from a more scientific point of view than the feature does. Interview number three is entitled Special Effects (15:43) and it's an interesting discussion with Sergio Stivaletti where he covers his working relationship with Dario Argento and talks about using CGI for the first time. There's also some nice behind the scenes footage in this segment. Assistant Director (21:31) lets the always amiable Luigi Cozzi discuss how he's known Argento personally and professionally for well over three decades now and what it was like to work on this unique picture with one of horror's most celebrated directors. The fifth and final interview, Production Designer (22:34), gets Massimo Antonello Geleng in front of the camera to discuss the very different visual style that Argento employed for this very dark film. Each of the featurettes, directed by David Gregory, is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
One of Argento's more underrated efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is finally given a proper domestic release in North American with fantastic audio and video quality and a wealth of interesting extras that not only document the making of the film but which lend some very welcome insight into the unique condition that inspired it in the first place. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.