Starring: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti and Paolo Bonacelli
Dir.: Dario Argento
Dario Argento’s recent work has not been up to scratch, however basely entertaining ‘Mother of Tears’ was, the man was in his absolute prime during the 70’s and 80’s with films such as ‘Opera’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Tenebre’ and ‘Profondo Rosso’ but to name a few. As time went on, his style had become fraught with commercialism and relies primarily on shock value to grab an audience’s attention. However, as with every other novelty, once the effect has worn off, we shake our heads and go on our merry way. However, during the 90’s, amongst this steady decline, Argento managed to make a little-seen gem of a film that could have almost been his comeback ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’.
Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) works for the anti-rape squad of the Roman police. She is one of their best officers and has been tasked to hunt down a serial killer/rapist, a search which has led her to Florence. While checking out the Uffizi Gallery, Anna is overwhelmed by the numerous works of art and she passes out. Turns out Detective Manni is afflicted with a case of the obscure Stendhal Syndrome- a strange affliction that causes the victim suffer a seizure by absorbing artwork, in Anna’s case, she enters a painting and experiences the sensations the picture gives. Unfortunately, when she suffers one of these fits while in the gallery, the rapist himself, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann) is watching and he falls in love… you know what that means.
This movie is downright sinister, and I mean that with nothing but love. For the first hour of the movie, Argento puts all of his talent to the fore- a compelling story, demented killers, determined victims of circumstance, gorgeous imagery and maliciously artistic violence. Although she would later do the torrid ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and the fun but ultimately stupid ‘XxX’ Asia Argento’s work in this movie is solid. You with her every step of the way from beginning to end. You find yourself caring for her and it hurts when she is subjected to Grossi’s treatment. She reminds one of a stronger Hitchcockian female; vulnerable but at the same time exuding a strength that when tested can be formidable. Simultaneously, this film introduced me to German actor Thomas Kretschmann who plays Anna’s foil to a T. The way he starts to gets Anna’s skin even when he isn’t there, how wretched he is when he plays his games with her. Kretschmann, despite not being a huge box office draw in the West, is a pleasure of an actor, so when he shows up in films, it’s always a delight, even when he’s playing a revolting fucker such as Alfredo. Dare I say it, Alfredo Grossi is one of my favourite villains in cinema ever, not only is he reprehensible in his actions, he’s also clever, charming and attractive. Grossi is not some run off the mill lunatic bastard- it is implied he has a legitimate professional career and he’s a family man to boot. Who would believe a fine, upstanding paragon of society could possibly be a deranged serial killer? Another unique element that adds to the impact of the film is that, like ‘Opera’ it takes something distinctly highbrow (in this case, fine art) and makes it the catalyst for something quite sinister. Perhaps one of the most daring aspects of the film is that it deals with sexual identity and self concept. Despite the fact Anna begins as a rational policewoman, she succumbs to a deeper level of psychological torment that makes her change not just physically, but mentally as well. She becomes as obsessed with Alfredo that he is with her, at times, it’s as if he is by her side even when he is not and her attitude begins to manifest into a different beast completely which eerily mirrors Alfredo’s own. One of the many physical manifestations she takes is cutting her hair short, bulking up at the boxing ring and wearing decidedly masculine clothing.
So, that being said, remember when I said this movie was brilliant for the first hour? Well, the second hour is not so much. You see, despite his attempts at being daring and original by introducing a new major development, he simultaneously dropped his load way too soon. To be vague, Alfredo becomes more of a secondary character whilst Anna fully takes the reins, I feel this is where the film fell on its face. If the second half had been a separate film, it perhaps would have felt more natural, but in the way Argento has constructed it, it’s as if he realized that he has let go one of the most precious commodities in his movie and has to spend the remaining 60 minutes filling it up with line after line of superfluous intrigue. It is not until the final moments does the movie finally re-establishes it’s power, but even the most attentive audience members would struggle to maintain the amount of interest required. I really wish Argento had either re-considered the new direction the movie would take, or had focused the same amount of energy he had in the first half of the movie.
To a lesser extent, outside of Argento and Kretschmann’s characters, all of the supporting players are quite expendable. The only other character I had vested interest in was Manni’s psychologist Doctor Cavanna. The actor manages to take a third fiddle character and made him an enigmatic yet fascinating figure in Anna’s life that she turned to when she needed guidance. One character I absolutely couldn’t FUCKING STAND was Anna’s douche boyfriend. The first thing he does to Anna when she gets off the train after her doomed trip to Florence is fucking proposition her- YOUR GIRLFRIEND WAS ASSAULTED BY A RAPIST, DO YOU THINK SHE WILL BE IN THE MOOD FOR ANY INTIMATE CONTACT OF THAT NATURE?! THINK, SHITHEAD, THINK! I know I am not alone in thinking this, and finally, when Anna has enough of his selfish ways, she make him pay will no doubt make you laugh if not shock you first. You don’t see something like that happen in a movie every day.
I would also like to bring up the transgressive violence in this movie. Apart from some pretty out there moments, this movie doesn’t use bloodshed as liberally as Argento’s other films and despite it being a film about rape, there is no nudity (that I saw…) and thank Mephisto for that. Argento knows he is dealing with something quite heavy, and although it may seem very odd that he is showing his own daughter being subjected to such humiliation, he still treats the issue with sensitivity and he does not glamorize it. Considering typical Argento tends to exaggerate violence, to see his treatment of a terrible crime against any human being in such an intelligent fashion is completely refreshing and surprising. In an essence, this is perhaps Argento’s most realistic film, and despite the dated visual effects (such as pills going down an oesophagus), the story is backed by many stunning moments, such as what you see below.
Overall, this movie was as solid as they come, despite its serious misstep, and it showcases what Argento could be if he stopped making films laden with gore and little else. If he could some day make another film with a heady mix of thrills story credibility and his trademark style he could reclaim the ground his has lost in recent years and thus reclaim his old audience and claim a new one. Until that day comes however, ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ is a worthy candle holder about how wonderful Argento was and could still be.
BT Dubs: I strongly recommend you watch the film with English subtitles because the English dubbing lessens the overall impact of the excellent performances from Argento and Kretschmann plus it just sounds awkward.