Losing Wes Craven and now George Romero was a tough blow. They were both two of my favorite directors during my “discovery” years. Argento has always been the third piece of my genre inspiration puzzle. In the past couple of days, I’ve found myself switching between Romero’s films and the works of The Maestro, hoping to unlock something perhaps I’ve missed. I want these films to be celebrated and cherish Argento’s work as long as we have him around. It’s an odd coping mechanism in the wake of Romero’s passing, but it’s doing the trick. I’ve been leaning towards Argento’s later films, the ones not held in such high regard. Sleepless, for instance, is a terribly underrated late entry Giallo that features gut punching set pieces and beautiful camera work.
As if a gift from the gods, the new Blue Underground release of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome arrived early, ahead of its July 25th street date, and I’ve already plundered its bounty (hmm, word choice?). The three disc set is pretty much the definitive release of a film that has had a rough journey on the road to find its audience. Prior to production, the story went from starring Bridget Fonda and being set in the US to becoming a star vehicle for the director’s daughter, Asia Argento, and taking place in Rome. Once completed, it was picked up by the Weinsteins for North American distribution. Not so shockingly, the film was left to collect dust amongst the shelves of Miramax (alongside many other foreign genre fares).
That’s where Troma stepped in, snapping up the rights. While this finally meant fans had a chance to see the film, the DVD was notoriously awful. The transfer appeared to be ripped from a grimy VHS and the letterboxing was actually crooked. It wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, Blue Underground came along and released a better version in 2007. There were still minor issues that left some fans unsatisfied. Now ten years later, BU has rectified all concerns. This disc is a beauty and does supreme justice to one of Argento’s most visually sumptuous works this side of Suspiria.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it follows a young detective on the trail of a sadistic serial rapist and murderer. The detective, played by a 19-year-old Asian Argento, not only falls victim to the very man she is tracking but to a rare sickness known as Stendhal Syndrome. It’s a disorder that can befall a person after they become emotionally overwhelmed by a work of art. Dizziness, strange behavior, fever are all par for the course. This incident in Detective Anna Manni’s life sets her on a dangerous path, and Argento crafts a twisted tale of psychosexual madness.
The biggest complaint against Stendhal is that it doesn’t aim for suspense, at least not until the final act. The film is, at times, repulsive and uncomfortable but it never draws you to the edge of your seat like so many Hitchcockian tropes it emulates. The film works – and works exceedingly well, however, as a psychological character study. The cinematography is hypnotizing and Asia’s performance is astounding.
She truly shows Anna’s journey from meek wanderer to tough macho man and back to docile damsel. It’s an outstanding turn. As Asia moves through the film, her character changes physically. Starting in plain-Jane white blouses to more masculine flannel and blazers, she finally lands on a blonde-noir goddess. Asia’s performance morphs with each look: switching up her body language and the cadence of her voice (Italian language track at least). Argento realizes the talent within his daughter and isn’t afraid to push her through some incredibly horrid scenes. As rough as the film gets, it’s all in favor of telling an important story. Thematically the film touches on the cycle of abuse, gender identity, and the expectations of femininity. It all builds to a somber climax. The final shot of the film is genuinely heartbreaking and actually brought me to shed a few tears. I can’t help but wonder the reputation this film might have had Miramax actually released it with the “art house” treatment as intended. As it stands, The Stendhal Syndrome is an almost forgotten blip on the legacy of Dario Argento.
I’m no expert when it comes to restorations (2k, 4k, or otherwise), but I do know this is the first time the film has been presented in its intended aspect ratio (1:85:1) and that the images are striking. At first, I was a little worried that the colors seemed almost muted. Everything was a dreary palette of brown. It became clear as I was watching this must have been by design. For after Anna succumbs to the titular Stendhal Syndrome, the colors in the film began to pop. The visuals become more vibrant as the narrative pushes forward. There is quite a bit of CGI within the film. This being the first Italian production to ever utilize CGI, it certainly shows. Thankfully, the bold, unrealistic effects work in the story’s favor as they’re typically used to bring paintings to life. The amateur nature of the CG is easily forgiven when the desired effect is so surreal. Film grain was one of the major concerns from the previous release, I can attest the amount of grain on display here is heavy, but it feels natural and is never distracting. It’s a beautiful restoration that allows the cinematography to truly shine.
In terms of special features, this is a three disc set. Everything from the 2007 release has been ported over onto its own disc. One disc is a DVD version of the film. The third blu is the feature plus brand new interviews with co-writer Franco Ferrini, makeup effects artist Franco Casagni, and best of all – a chat with Asia Argento. She discusses the difficulty of the shoot and claims this to be her favorite of the films she’s made with her father. There’s even a brand new commentary from Giallo scholar Troy Howarth. Overall, for fans of Argento, this set should be a no brainer. If you already own the previous Blue Underground release, I can understand the hesitance to double dip. However, the film has simply never looked better. If you’re still stuck with the Troma DVD…well, you owe it to yourself to upgrade. The set is limited to 3,000 copies, so you better hurry!