Film Reviews:

The Stendhal Syndrome/La Sindrome di Stendhal

(Dario Argento, It, 1996)

At one point in Dario Argento's latest film one character tells another, "Works of art have a power over us", adding "and great works of art have a great power over us". There are, I'm sure, many visitors to this website who can say that at some time they have experienced the power of great art in a Dario Argento film. The same cannot be said, however, of The Stendhal Syndrome. The film is about Anna Manni, (Asia Argento - daughter of director Dario) a female police detective who is tracking down Thomas Kretschmann (Alfredo Grossi), a serial rapist who is beginning to kill his victims. Following a lead from Rome to Florence, Anna is relaxing in an art gallery when she experiences the syndrome of the title - a real condition that causes fainting and prolonged illness brought on by the sight of an overpoweringly beautiful work of art. A gentleman who comes to her aid turns out to be the rapist Kretschmann who begins threatening Anna cat-and-mouse fashion but lets her live. Anna experiences more incidents like the one in Florence and begins seeing a psychologist who attempts to help her come to terms with her condition and the killer stalking her.

Accompanying the opening credits is a clasically-based theme by composer Ennio Morricone that blends naturally with the images of many classic paintings that scroll up the screen. Added to this are the cinemascope compositions of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, whose work for fellow compatriots Bertolucci and Fellini has made him one of the leading directors of photography in Italy. Whilst this blend of classic, beautiful painting, music and photography work wonders together, they create a film very different to Argento's best work. Gone are the dramatic sets and lighting effects of Suspiria, and the subjective view of the Steadicam, so prevalent in Aregnto's earlier films, is nowhere to be seen (Rotunno refused to work with it). I don't have a problem with these more familiar elements being absent per se, but, Argento unwittingly does. His natural stylistic flair is restrained by fixed camera cinemascope compositions that look wonderful (and probably took ages to set up and light) but slow the director's naturally frenetic technique. Only Angelo Nicolini manages to introduce any pace into the film with his notable editing.

Argento's routine flashes of genius can be found amongst the bloated 119 minute running time. A computer generated image of a bullet passing through the cheeks of one of Kretschmann's victim's, with the reflection of the killer's face fleetingly seen on the side of the bullet, is a stunning and memorable scene. Equally outstanding are the scenes that feature Anna's Stendhal Syndrome attacks. In the Florence gallery she imagines herself jumping into a painting of a seascape, then diving into the sea where she swims to the deep and kisses a grotesque fish. Later she sees a painting on the wall of her hotel room drip down the wall into the shape of a rectangle, that 'sinks' back into the brickwork, forming a doorway that takes her from the Florence hotel to the scene of another rape in Rome. The last seizure we witness depicts Anna, once again in a gallery, walking into a full-size painting of a waterfall, which she then steps through making her soaking wet. But all these highlights are confined to the first half of the film and the second hour flags badly. Red herrings are introduced but absent are the surprises that characterise Argento's work. The often unintentionally comical dialogue (and poor dubbing) doesn't help and the good performances from Grossi as the killer and particularly Asia Argento as Anna are constantly undermined by this annoying element. There is some small saving grace by the very end of the film when Argento uses the title illness to depict a cerebral (rather than his familiar visceral) horror. 'Disappointing' is insufficient to sum up The Stendhal Syndrome. Many will rate this below Trauma - Argento's brief flirtation with Hollywood - possibly considering this his worst ever film. But then Argento's worst is still better than many others' best.

Rob Dyer