The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) Movie Review

Originally released back in 1996, Dario Argento’s late career outing “The Stendhal Syndrome” arrives again on DVD thanks to Arrow Video, coming complete with new specially designed sleeve artwork. Based upon the novel by Graziella Magherini, the film saw Argento working again with screenwriter Franco Ferrini, with who he had collaborated on for the likes of “Phenomena”, “Trauma” and “Opera”, and also features a score from legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Despite this impressive pedigree, and the fact that it stars Argento’s gorgeous daughter Asia (who went on to appear in the likes of “xXx” and Romero’s “Land of the Dead”) in the lead, like most of the director’s more recent efforts, it has been treated with disdain by many fans. As such, and with his career continually having failed to undergo a proper revival, it now stands as being ripe for rediscovery on its own terms.

The plot sees Asia as Anna Manni, a young detective assigned to Rome’s special anti-rape unit who is attempting to track down a particularly vicious serial rapist and killer. Unfortunately, she suffers from a rare mental condition known as the Stendhal Syndrome, which causes her to hallucinate when looking at works of art. The killer chooses her for his next target, and lures her to Florence’s famous Uffizi museum, where he traps and kidnaps her. This proves only to be the beginning of her ordeal, as the madman becomes increasingly obsessed with her, forcing her to watch as he commits his dreadful crimes.

Although there is no question that none of Argento’s films post “Opera” in 1987 come anywhere near the standard of his early works such as “Suspiria”, “Deep Red” and others, to an extent it is a little unfair to hold a director to ransom over his past successes. Certainly, viewed in its own right, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is a film with much to offer, not least of which is a fascinating and original premise, which makes for some wild, surreal scenes as its protagonist is almost pulled into works of art. In visual terms, whilst not quite vintage Argento, lacking the bravura use of colours for which he became well known, it is suitably stylised in places, with some impressive technical trickery that shows hints of his genius. At the same time, the more outlandish sequences are combined with a more realistic grounding, and whilst this does make the film less dream like than his earlier films, it helps to anchor the narrative and to make its central investigation somewhat more effective.

The film similarly delivers the shocks, with some graphic murder scenes and lashings of sadism and sexual perversion. Argento puts an interesting focus on the relationship between Anna and the killer, and although he turns out to be a rather standard madman, at least by the director’s standards, this still takes the film into some bravely psychosexual territory. Despite lacking any really grandiose set pieces, the film again benefits from being somewhat less fantastical. If anything, this different approach for Argento only serves to further highlight the film’s nastier elements, and at times it gets quite hard to believe that he would put his own daughter through such unpleasant onscreen trials.

The film certainly does have its flaws. Chief amongst these is the fact that Argento has never been particularly bothered with or good at telling a coherent or engaging story. In more surreal outings such as “Suspiria”, this was not an issue. However with “The Stendhal Syndrome”, where he is attempting to offer up a serious psychological and detective mystery, the lack of focus or narrative logic leaves the viewer adrift and disconnected. The film has serious pacing issues, being effective only in spurts, and with Argento himself seeming to lose interest long before the end. Unfortunately, this does make the film rather dull in places, a real problem given that it clocks in at two hours, and that its story never flows or fits together.

Still, no Argento film is without interest, and “The Stendhal Syndrome” is undoubtedly one of his best efforts of the last fifteen years or so. Particularly in the light of some of his missteps that followed, it is certainly worthy of being revisited by fans, and perhaps of being treated a little more kindly than it has in the past, as even when not on top of his game, Argento is still one of the most stylish and effective directors still dedicated to the genre.

Dario Argento (director) / Graziella Magherini (novel), Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini (screenplay)
CAST: Asia Argento … Det. Anna Manni
Thomas Kretschmann … Alfredo Grossi
Marco Leonardi … Marco Longhi
Luigi Diberti … Insp. Manetti
Paolo Bonacelli … Dr. Cavanna
Julien Lambroschini … Marie

Buy The Stendhal Syndrome on DVD