The Stendhal Syndrome

cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, and John Quentin

director: Dario Argento

118 minutes (18) 1996
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Stendhal Syndrome

This is a twisted psychological thriller by the legendary Italian director Dario Argento. It opens with a sequence that is both oppressive in its atmosphere, powerful in its imagery and masterly in its technical prowess. Without a word being spoken, Argento immerses us in the world of his protagonist Anna Manni. The camera tells us all that we need to know about Anna; we know that she is beautiful, we know that she is feminine; we know that she is delicate and we know that she is a victim. A victim of the past and a victim of the present…

As Anna (Asia Argento) shoulders her way through the tourist-packed streets of Florence, Renaissance statuary seems to loom out at her from every corner: a Michelangelo here, a Roman figure there, and all around her, the fleshy, sweating and undifferentiated mass of raw humanity. She cannot escape. The past and present are tangible everywhere she turns; tangible and utterly intolerable. Eventually, braving the queues, she ducks into an art gallery but here things only get worse.

Suddenly, Florence’s Renaissance past is no longer looming out at her from atop marble plinths. Now it is trying to devour her… assaulting her with the sounds of long dead moments captured in oils; screams from firing squads, drums from marching armies, the moan of the wind from a distant sea… the past is everywhere. And suddenly she is there, plunging into some ancient ocean. Embracing a fish… A god… A fragment of insanity… An instant of impossibility… When Anna wakes up her memory is gone, swept away in the wake of a psychic assault at the hands of a restless past. Finally she speaks… her first word is defiant: “No.”

As Anna returns to her hotel room, she starts to piece her life and identity back together. It turns out that she is a police officer sent from Rome in order to investigate a series of brutal rapes. However, unbeknownst to Anna, the lead that took her from Rome to Florence was one planted by the rapist (Thomas Kretschmann). He likes Anna. He likes her in particular. He likes her so much that when he eventually corners and rapes her, he does not kill her.

Instead he allows her to watch as he rapes and kills another woman. This sends Anna tumbling over the edge into a complete psychological breakdown. Suddenly the pretty little detective with the long hair and the short skirt is no more. In her place is a brooding and bruising presence that dresses like a man, talks like a man, picks fights with her colleagues and strokes her new gun with an almost obscene expression of joy on her face. Why has Anna assumed this new identity?

One reading of the film is that it is a defence mechanism: Anna was picked out and raped because she was beautiful, delicate and feminine and so, by becoming incredibly masculine, she is hoping to ward off the interest of the rapist. Indeed, when Anna has a confrontation with the rapist – which she wins – her identity shifts again. It swings violently back towards the feminine with the help of a long blonde wig and an air of doe-eyed innocence that attracts the interest of a French art student named Marie.

This is the reading that the film wants us to buy into. It encourages us to view Anna as a victim and to see her changes in identity as expressions of some feminine hysteria caused by rape. It evens wants us to sympathise with figures such as the senior detective, and the boyfriend (Marco Leonardi), who only want the best for Anna and who only want to protect her from the dangers of the world…

But Argento is only leading us down the garden path. By opening the film with a wordless scene of unparalleled psychological tension, Argento is pointedly not commenting upon the reasons for Anna’s unease. Anna is feeling oppressed by her surroundings before she even enters the museum, let alone before she gets raped. So what is causing Anna’s unhappiness?

A different reading of the film is that it is all about men: indeed, the rapist is a tall, blond man who bears an eerie resemblance to Anna’s distant and unsympathetic father whose initial response to her being attacked is that she should not be working as a police officer in the first place. Indeed, Anna is oppressed by patriarchy. Everywhere she goes there are patronising men looking out for her best interests. When she is raped, her superiors park a bunch of detectives outside her flat so that she cannot be alone.

According to this reading of the film, Anna’s transformation is not about defence but about offence. It is an attempt to take charge of her life by taking on masculine traits: the same traits as those that define her rapist. The Stendhal Syndrome (aka: La sindrome di Stendhal) is an exquisitely shot and complex study of a woman in crisis: in crisis because of things that happen to her… In crisis because of the men that surround her… In crisis because of the society she inhabits.

Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography combines brilliantly with Ennio Morricone’s eerie score to create incredible moments of tension and horror. However, at nearly two hours, the film does feel a trifle over-long and after Anna’s showdown with the rapist the narrative starts to lose shape, descending into a rather directionless and episodic series of encounters that service the subtext but in a rather heavy-handed manner that only serves to undermine the film’s rather predictable ‘twist’ ending.