|release date||September 25 2007|
|starring||Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi|
If horror films are simply manifestations of our worst nightmares brought to life, designed from their conception to force the viewer to face their fears in the relative safety of a crowed movie house, then the men and women who make those films are the dark sandmen of our dreams, delivering surrealistic imagery and haunting chills to ensnare our imagination and sear our souls. If the maestro of this dreamlike symphony is Italian horror director Dario Argento, then THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is a signature aria in his operatic oeuvre of the fantastic.
Asia Argento plays police detective Anna Manni. Anna, who is in pursuit of a serial killer is tipped that the madman will be at Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. Without back-up, Anna heads to the Gallery to apprehend the murderer. Once inside, she is overcome with emotion while staring at Pieter Bruegel’s painting Fall of Icarus. Transported inside the painting Anna is trapped underwater and kissed by a large grouper—when she awakens, back on the floor of the Gallery, her lip bloodied from passing out, she discovers that she is suffering from the Stendhal Syndrome—a psychological condition in which great works of art cause a kind of psychosomatic terror or euphoria in patients. Attentive to her needs at the gallery, a stranger Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann—GRIMM LOVE) helps her into a nearby cab. Little does Anna realize that Grossi is the very man she is trying to put away. Anna returns to her hotel room where another painting overwhelms her, this time transporting her to an old crime scene, revealing the bloody details of Grossi’s deeds. Disoriented by the syndrome and desperate to capture Grossi, Anna awakens to find the monster inside her room. There he cuts and rapes her.
As Anna recovers from the assault she slowly begins to transform from the long-haired girl dressed in a frilly-white blouse to a closely cropped woman dour and dressed in masculine suits. When Anna is ultimately kidnapped and tortured again by Grossi in a sequence of events that is arrestingly brutal, she finally snaps, escaping and eventually throwing Grossi over a waterfall to his apparent death. Scared both physically and emotionally from the twin assaults Anna retreats—hiding her face behind a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo wig and a beige trench coat. But, when the killings return in an increasingly vicious fashion, Anna must overcome her terror and begin to unravel the mystery behind new attacks.
THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is a divisive film and hardly Argento’s best work. However, the production stands apart as one of the few films from the Master of Horror that succeeds in combining the dreamlike trance of earlier productions, such as SUSPIRIA with the stark reality and gratuitous bloodshed of Giallo films like TENEBRE and DEEP RED. Filled with the kind of signature shots that Argento devotees dream of, THE STENDHAL SYNDROME may not be the best of both worlds captured on film, but it is unquestionably a key entry in the filmmaker’s catalogue.
The issue that I take with the film occurs almost directly at the halfway point, when Anna kicks the limp corpse of Grossi’s body into the raging white water. In many ways this pivotal moment serves as an emotional end to the story. That the film is only just beginning its second chapter is where the problem lies.
The first tale is Anna Manni’s reality trapped in a nightmare world—crippled by the titular disease and felled upon by a sadistic, inhuman, killer. The second act is a straightforward mystery, no different and no more challenging than later works like SLEEPLESS and THE CARD PLAYER. It’s a straight Giallo that in its worst moments feels like a cheap knockoff of TENEBRE. But the real crux of the problem in the second act is not that it feels uninspired. In fact, viewed on it’s own as an entirely separate film, it may have its merits. But, as a companion to the blistering fury of the first 60-minutes it doesn’t stand a chance—crippled, not by its obvious ending, but by its direct comparison to the greatly superior first act. With such promise at the outset, it’s disheartening that—like Anna’s fragile psyche— THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is clearly broken into two very divergent aspects.
While the film might have its detractors, the DVD re-release of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME—courtesy of Blue Underground—will give Argentophiles nothing to argue. Compared to the original 1999 issue by Troma, one might swear that they were watching an entirely different film. Gone is the murky transfer and in its place is a print so bright and clean that it actually makes some of the films more rudimentary CGI work look frightfully amateurish—and I mean that with the utmost respect to the film. The disc also includes an Italian language track that will allow purists a glimpse of—at least most of—the major performers speaking in their native tongue. But the second disc is where this set picks up the bulk of the bonus features.
Disc Two is divided into five documentary components. Essentially each section focuses on a different aspect of production and is carried out in as extended interview sequences with the subjects. These interviews are then enhanced with visual representations of points each participant is addressing including loads of Renaissance paintings to sate all you art lovers out there.
The first piece focuses on Director, Dario Argento. Argento discusses the genesis of the plot and his own research into the Syndrome, which took him on a tour of the great art houses of Europe in search of his inspiration. Argento also discusses production and the casting of his daughter Asia and German actor Thomas Kretschmann in addition to his reconnection with famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who had last worked with Argento on 1971’s FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. The most interesting aspect of this doc is Argento’s dialogue on the difficulties encountered while shooting the projects intense rape sequences, having cast his own daughter as the victim. Vintage interview footage with actress Asia also tackles the problematic nature of these moments, and the piece shines a light on a very personal professional relationship between two people absolutely committed to the truth of cinema.
The second documentary focuses specifically on Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini. Magherini—an Italian Psychologist—was responsible for authoring the 1989 book “La sindrome di Stendhal” and giving name to the disease which has plagued visitors to her Florentine hospital for nearly 20-years. Although Magherini’s 22-minutes of screen time feels more like an unmitigated academic dissertation on the nature of the illness, replete with case studies, it stands as the most beneficial inclusion on this disc and grounds the character of Anna’s garish hallucinations in the fascinating web of reality.
The final three docs offer some moments of interest, but most gorehounds are going to be drawn to the featurette on special effects designer Sergio Stivaletti. Stivaletti discusses at length the pains the production went through to create the—at that time in the Italian film industry—state-of-the-art digital effects for the production. Fans of the splatmasters work will be especially excited to see and hear how the magician blended traditional hands-on effects work with digital images to imagine the films memorable “bullet through the cheek sequence”. It’s refreshing to hear Stivaletti discuss the shortcomings of the effects sequences in light of the unbelievable leaps forward the medium has made in the 11-years since the production was released. Stivaletti takes it all in stride and that makes his moment in the spotlight really stand out.
The last two are only interesting for adding an additional dimension to the overall production as Assistant Director Luigi Gozzi and Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng add their thoughts on the film and Geleng’s contributions to the visual flair that flourishes on screen—he began as a fine artist, and those touches are felt throughout the course of the production.
It’s almost unfair to compare and contrast the differences between Blue Underground’s re-release of STENDHAL with the almost mockingly childish release that Troma gave the film. Visually the comparison is night verses day. The extras cultivated by David Gregory and the crew at Blue Underground are well presented as always. There is no spliced-in footage of Lloyd Kaufman supposedly interviewing Argento to accompany this excellent release. If you love this film, or even if you consider it to be a valent but flawed effort on the part of Argento, there is no argument that the newly minted re-release is a celebratory event for fans of the true Master of Horror.