The Stendhal Syndrome aka La sindrome di Stendhal (1996)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Mitus grew up watching Chiller Theater & Pittsburgh UHF channels and has been a drive-in enthusiast for the last seven years. Sean enjoys all genres but has recently become interested in Italian Giallo and Poliziotteschi genres. 

“A young policewoman slowly goes insane while tracking down an elusive serial rapist/killer through Italy when she herself becomes a victim of the brutal man’s obsession.” – IMDB

After licking his wounds from back-to-back underperforming releases filmed in the US (Two Evil Eyes and Trauma), Dario Argento returned to Italy (and some say to peak form) with The Stendhal Syndrome, hereafter referred as Stendhal Syndrome. The film stars his daughter, Asia Argento, as Detective Anna Manni and then Euro-star Thomas Krestchmann as Alfredo Grossi.  Argento’s Stendhal Syndrome is a fascinating inversion of the usual giallo tropes.  

The film opens with a cold open of Anna Mani and we have no idea who she is.  We see here have a transcendent experience while touring the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, Italy.  The experience is a purported psychosomatic phenomenon known as the Stendhal Syndrome and is visually realized in early CGI with visual flair by Sergio Stivaletti.  Anna is helped by a stranger, Alfredo.  Anna develops amnesia and begins to recover small details.  As she investigates the latest rape and murder crime scene, Anna is attacked and raped by Alfredo who turns out to be a wanted serial rapist and killer. What follows is another visual set piece of the rape and murder of another victim.

Anna escapes and attempts to put her life back together.  As she does, Anna has sudden shifts in her personality, appearance, and behavior.  She has another Stendhal experience before being reinstated to limited duties as a Detective with mandated counseling sessions.  Anna becomes obsessed in finding Alfredo and his visage begins to dominate her every thought.  She returns a colleague’s romantic advances with a simulation of her sexual assault by Alfredo.

Anna returns to her hometown and family for a more supportive environment.  However, her distant relationship with her father doesn’t help any.   Anna tries painting as therapy without rrelief  It actually seems to drive her deeper into mental instability.  While this goes on, we see Alfredo target, rape and murder another victim in a harsh set piece.  As Anna contacts early victims who attest to Alfredo’s brutality and devastating impact, Alfredo calls Anna from within her apartment and kidnaps her once again.  

Alfredo brings Anna to his lair and in the harshest set piece brutally assaults and rapes Anna.  He keeps her captive, and Anna has another Stendhal fugue of sexual torment.  Alfredo returns for another assault, when Anna manages to turn the tables on him.  She fights viscously and recovers her gun. In Alfredo’s attempt to exert psychological dominance, Anna manages to shoot Alfredo and disables him in a cathartic beating.  She taunts Alfredo before dumping him helpless into a waterfall and raging waters below.   

The final third of the film finds Anna unable to shake Alfredo’s psychological scars, even as she flips back to a feminine persona and appearance.  The investigation into Alfredo’s background reveals a distorted obsession with Anna.  She claims to be recovered from her visions and their effects.  She meets a French art student and the budding romance seems to put her on the path to recovery.  Suddenly, Anna is getting phone calls from Alfredo, and Anna’s new lover is mysteriously murdered.  Anna is notified that Alfredo’s body has been recovered and she seeks clarity from her psychologist who instead challenges her distorted point-of-view on Alfredo’s influence over her.

In the film’s climax, Anna’s colleague Marco rushes to see Anna as we see Anna fully transform to her feminine, protective self.  We see the body of her psychologist who was brutally murdered by Anna. We along with Marco see Anna finally revealed as the murderer of her psychologist and lover. Anna has finally succumbed to Alfredo’s madness in full. She lures Marco to her car and kills him. Anna attempts to flee, but we know she never will be free of Alfredo as the film ends.

As I mentioned, the Stendhal Syndrome is dominated by the theme of inversions: 

  • The story upends the usual giallo tropes with the killer being known early in the film.
  • The killer, Alfredo, is dispatched at the midpoint of the film.
  • Anna becomes predator a la rape revenge movies (Call Her One Eye; Repulsion; I Spit on Your Grave).
  • Anna becomes more aggressive both sexually and personality, dresses more masculine, and later seeks out and repeats her degradation on Alfredo
  • Anna later flips back to her feminine side to but continues to lose control of her sanity and ultimately descends into madness a la Repulsion

The Stendhal Syndrome is a strong entry in the giallo pantheon.  Argento’s aggressively misogynistic treatment of how women are assaulted and murdered, rivaling Fulci’s The New York Ripper) and Asia Argento’s relatively young age in the role (just 21 during release) may put off some.  I argue that by this time Argento had included more slasher-style set pieces as with Tenebrae, Trauma and Opera so this shouldn’t come as a surprise and that  Asia Argento’s performance does not limit her character development.  

Further strengthening the viewer’s experience is Thomas Krestchmann’s sublime performance as the sociopath Alfredo, the moody cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, and Ennio Morricone’s usual nuanced score.  I recommend The Stendhal Syndrome for giallo and Argento fans who have seen his earlier works. Seek out Blue Underground’s 3-Disc Limited Edition for a full treatment of this deserved gem!

References

  • The Art of Madness: Inside ‘The Stendhal Syndrome” – Michael Gingold; Blue Underground 3-Disc Limited Edition © 2017
  • Film Commentary – Troy Howarth; ; Blue Underground 3-Disc Limited Edition © 2017
  • So Deadly, So Perverse, Vol. 2 – Troy Howarth; Midnight Marquee Press, Inc; © 2015
  • https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117658/reference

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