After watching Trauma and seeing the premonitions of failure in Dario Argento’s later works that the film possessed, La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome) was surprisingly refreshing in its successes. That’s not to say that Syndrome is perfect; there’s a lot wrong with this movie, including multiple sexual assaults, a killer with impenetrable motivations, some really bad effects, and disturbingly dark sexual politics. If you can overlook those problems, there’s a decent mystery here and a fresh twist, even if it is predicated on a skewed sense of gender dynamics and a warped understanding of trauma. This review, like this movie, is quite triggering with regards to sexual assault, so be warned. Also, spoilers.
Anna Manni (Asia Argento, appearing in one of her father’s films for the second time) fled her small home city at an early age to escape her unhappy family life; now, she’s a police inspector in Rome. She is involved in an unfulfilling romantic relationship with her partner Marco (Marco Leonardi, of Cinema Paradiso and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), which has become increasingly strained as the two investigate a serial rapist who has recently begun to murder his victims as well. Anna’s detective work leads her to Florence, where she receives an anonymous tip that leads her to the world-famous Uffizi Gallery. She is overcome by the titular syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to an intensely profound experience (usually exposure to art) with physiological effects, and faints, splitting her lip and experiencing a bout of amnesia.
Of course, this is not made evident at the outset. The film opens with the unidentified Anna at the Uffizi Gallery, where she is “transported” into Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, as the waves in the painting suddenly move and she finds herself flying over the CGI water before falling in and kissing a fish with a human-ish face (which is never explained). While I don’t think it was a bad idea to obfuscate the narrative from the outset, necessarily, this is a strange scene that doesn’t set the mood for the rest of the film, and I would argue that failing to express a thesis for such a prolonged time before the plot appears is one of the film’s failings.
Anna faints after the Icarus weirdness and is helped to her feet by a handsome man, whom she will later learn is named Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Having lost her memory, Anna finds her hotel using the room key in her pocket. That evening, she enters another fugue state during which a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch dissolves and she passes through it into a memory of one of the serial rapist/killer’s crime scenes, where we learn why she was in Florence. Then, suddenly, she’s back in her hotel room where the rapist is revealed to be Alfredo, who assaults Anna.
Let’s not mince words here: this is a deeply, deeply fucked up scene. This is by far Argento’s darkest movie, and I don’t say that lightly. Criticism of Argento’s early work often referenced a perception of his work as being misogynistic and glorifying both sexual objectification and sexual violence. In those works, however, any sexual assault was only referenced or alluded to, while here the rape is shown, in detail, with physical violence including punches and slashing. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the rape that is later revealed to be a motivating factor for the killer is referred to as a crime that occurred ten years prior and depicted only in the artwork of a demented hermit painter. The closest that his earlier work has come to this was in the flashbacks that motivated the killer in Tenebrae, in which he was physically assaulted on the beach and a beautiful woman molested him with the red heels that would become his obsession. There was a quiet understatement in those earlier works that is not present here, with its horrifying first person points of view of both victim and assailant, and the scene feels like it goes on forever. It’s exploitative, frankly, even before you take into account that this character was portrayed by Argento’s daughter. or the fact that it will happen again.
Afterwards, the drugged Anna awakes during Alfredo’s next crime and watches as he murders his next victim, which he seems to do solely for Anna’s viewing. She flees and returns to Rome, where her boss, Inspector Manetti (Luigi Diberti), places her under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli) and recommends she spend some time with her family. Anna visits her father (John Quentin), and reminisces with her brothers about how her mother used to take her to the nearby museum to look at the art, where she experienced Stendhal Syndrome for the first time. She also cuts her hair and begins dressing in men’s traditional clothing, affecting a more masculine look as she trains as a boxer and begins creating paintings of her own, all of them of a screaming face. Alfredo tracks her down, and after assaulting her again and leaving her handcuffed and tied down to a mattress for several hours, he returns, but she is able to overtake him and exact some Rasputinian revenge: first she shoots him, then beats him, and breaks his neck, before throwing him into a river.
Anna returns to Rome, her personality further affected as she now wears a long blonde wig to cover scars from her assault and dresses only in white dresses. It is at this point that the police learn Alfredo’s identity, but Anna remains unconvinced that he has been vanquished. She strikes up a relationship with a Frenchman named Marie, an art student. When he, too, is murdered, the police search for Alfredo begins again.
There are a lot of problems here, foremost among them the representation of rape and sexual assault mentioned above. The revelation that Alfredo truly is dead and has been dead for weeks while the murders continue reveals that Anna’s repeated traumas have caused her to become a killer as well, and she ultimately reveals that Alfredo’s body is dead but he remains inside her. One way to read the implication of this is that the fractured psyches of victims of assault eventually lead them to become violent and psychopathic as well, which is just awful. It’s almost impossible to defend this choice either, especially when combined with other problematic elements here; for instance, one of the earlier rape victims that Alfredo left alive is interviewed by Anna, and she compares her assault, favorably, to sex with her boorish husband. There are huge sections of this narrative that are reprehensible at best, and that’s undeniable.
There are visual problems here as well. I’m not sure if the problem was a result of a bad transfer in the edition that I watched (it was a Troma DVD, after all), but the whole film looks like it was shot on video, which has the overall effect of causing it to feel both dated and cheap. It also reduces the impact of the artwork that’s shown throughout the movie, as it’s hard to imagine anyone being affected by the artwork when everything looks like a flat, bargain brand imitation rather than the real thing. Syndrome also has the distinction of being the first Italian film to use CGI, and Argento’s reasoning behind which images he chose to utilize this new technology to create are baffling. The CGI waves that emerge from Icarus actually look quite good, especially for a movie from 1996, but CGI is also used to follow a couple of pills that Anna swallows down her throat, for no apparent thematic reason. There are a few such scenes, where the images are unnecessary and silly looking, and as such are terribly distracting.
There’s also the fact that Anna, at such a young age (Asia was 20), seems far too young to be as professionally accomplished as she supposedly is. Further, there’s a general problem regarding whether or not Stendhal Syndrome is anything more that pseudopsychology. Still, this is a movie that’s quite good, in spite of all of its ethical and mechanical issues. The nonlinear narrative is at first confusing, but works better on reflection, as Syndrome acts as a kind of film version of a painting. What separates art and sculpture from prose, film, drama, and music is that those media incorporate time as an element of the story, progressing in a more or less linear fashion from beginning to end. Paintings and sculptures do not have this luxury, and thus must evoke an emotional rapport and create a rhetorical space through a still image, implying motion with static visuals. Syndrome, in many ways, acts as a series of set pieces that are presented out of order, and must be ordered after viewing. You cannot read The Night Watch from left to right like a sentence; you first see the figures highlighted by chiaroscuro, and then focus on other faces, or the figures’ clothing. Syndrome is much the same, and the attempt to recreate this kind of experience on film is laudable in its audacity and its success. I simply wish that they appeared in a movie that was praiseworthy for the content of its story as well, and that didn’t work so hard to make the audience feel Anna’s violation so viscerally and exploitatively.