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The Stendhal Syndrome
2-Disc Special Edition

The Stendhal Syndrome
Blue Underground
1996 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic widescreen / 119 min. / La Sindrome di Stendahl / Street Date September 25, 2007 / 29.95
Starring Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Production Design Antonello Geleng
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini inspired by Graziella Magherini's La Sindrome de Stendhal
Produced by Giuseppe Colombo
Directed by Dario Argento

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Italian filmmaker Dario Argento launched the first wave of bloody giallo thrillers with his 1971 Bird with the Crystal Plumage. His 1996 The Stendhal Syndrome attempts an enthusiastic resuscitation of the style. The production is first-rate, with sterling contributions from legendary cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno and composer Ennio Morricone. But Argento's script uses its central idea, a psychosis brought on by exposure to great art, as just another ingredient in a standard hash of awkward characterizations and mad sex murders. Viewers charmed by the classic-quality images will be disappointed by the film's painfully un-surprising surprise twists.


Visiting a museum to trap a serial rapist and murderer, Rome detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is overcome by hallucinations induced by the famous paintings. A handsome museum patron (Thomas Kretschmann) helps Anna to a taxi, but she's later terrorized, cut and raped by the criminal she hoped to catch. A police psychiatrist tells Anna about The Stendhal Syndrome, a delirious state experienced by visitors to art galleries. When it appears that the rapist is still stalking her, Anna goes home for a rest. But the seemingly unstoppable killer is not far behind, leaving a trail of female bodies in his wake.

The better 70's giallos are at heart exercises in high style, frequently taking place in modernistic settings resembling the contents of an Italian fashion magazine. Intense color designs emphasize the sensual surfaces of shiny crimson shoes and inky black leather gloves, and eroticize fatal encounters with stilettos and razor blades. 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome doesn't attempt the fetishistic sheen of Argento's earliest films but Rotunno's images are every bit as attractive. Digital effects visualize Anna Manni's subjective illusions, when the unbalanced young woman seems to 'enter' various works of art. A disturbing vocal in Ennio Morricone's eccentric score lends an appropriately creepy atmosphere to the entire experience. Although these devices are pictorially adept, their impact has been dulled by decades of surreal imagery. Anna hallucinates an ordinary hotel room door that connects with a crime scene we know to be far away, but the gag just seems too familiar.

The Stendhal Syndrome is reportedly a real phenomenon suffered by museum visitors, particularly sensitive people far from home. Patrons identify too strongly with the images or become emotionally overwhelmed by the experience. Argento presents some startling subjective-camera effects but the Syndrome remains a story gimmick. The policewoman and the killer are linked by a love of great art, which in the cramped vocabulary of the giallo film invariably indicates murderous madness.

What's missing is a coherent story or a meaningful theme. It soon becomes apparent that the narrative is a standard string of bloody set pieces, interrupted by occasional 'Stendhal effects'. Argento imitates classic Hitchcock to establish Anna Manni's obsession with great art. The subjective tricks, Morricone's music and the museum setting suggest Vertigo, especially when the villain intuits that Miss Manni will fall into a faint while hallucinating before a classic painting. Although Argento never reaches the copycat status of Brian De Palma, we've gone the homage route far too often.

The bulk of the story replays the same tired thriller clichés. Anna Manni's police protectors leave her ridiculously vulnerable and the killer easily finds quiet and private places for his screaming torture sessions. Miss Manni is allowed to stay on the job, when it's obvious that the young detective has become emotionally unhinged.

The tall and outwardly wholesome Thomas Kretschmann makes an excellent brute, although his actions are given no motivation. Asia Argento, the director's daughter, is a sympathetic actress but just seems too young. She's unconvincing as a seasoned detective assigned to a violent crime squad. Until the expected payback scene, her supposedly traumatized silence plays more like teenaged shyness.

Giallo fans will remark at the relatively tame level of sexual violence; the giallo format wasa once defined by sadistic tortures and kinky killing. The avoidance of nudity and graphic sexual humiliation seems a protective paternal gesture on the part of the director, who perhaps felt that the film's elaborate artistic hallucinations would compensate. Retro thrillers like The Stendhal Syndrome left the 90s horror market wide open for conquest. The reflexive satire of the Scream series and The Ring's new wave of J-Horror would soon take over completely.

Blue Undergrounds's 2-Disc Special Edition of The Stendhal Syndrome is yet another impeccable presentation. The flawless, colorful enhanced transfer is accompanied by audio in both 5.1 and DTS, with tracks in both dubbed English and Italian with optional English subtitles.

Director David Gregory assembles a quintet of effective and nicely judged featurettes with key filmmaking personnel. Dario Argento gives an overview of the production, and psychologist and author Graziella Magherini explains the very real phenomenon of the Stendhal effect. Assistant director Luigi Cozzi reviews his long association with the director and talks about the cult bookstore they have opened in Rome, and which he now manages. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng gives us insights into the process behind the film's startling look. Finally, special effects designer Sergio Stiletti examines The Stendhal Syndrome's exotic visuals, which are said to be the first CGI work done in Italy. Some of these illusions are weak and cartoonish -- a POV of pills in the esophagus and a bullet fired through a woman's cheeks. But the graphic tricks that pull Anna Manni into the gallery paintings are a more effective cross between the subjective delirium of Vertigo and Slavko Vorkapich's haunted map hallucinations in I Bury the Living.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Stendhal Syndrome rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, five featurettes directed by David Gregory featuring interviews with Argento, Graziella Magherini, Asst. director Luigi Cozzi, Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng & special effects man Sergio Stilvaletti
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: September 2, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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