There’s nothing quite like a horror film for experiencing fear in a safe, controlled setting. You can happily bear witness to all manner of gristly deaths, heinous murders and ludicrous amounts of gore because you know it’s not real. It’s only a movie. But there’s always a line, beyond which it all becomes too realistic, disturbing and uncomfortable. The Stendhal Syndrome doesn’t cross that line, but it treads awfully close.
Italian director Dario Argento is no stranger to the macabre. Most notably, he explored supernatural horror in Suspiria (1977) and before that he mastered the Italian giallo genre (a sub-genre of horror, where whodunit mysteries meet modern slashers) in the 1975 film Profondo Rosso (Deep Red).
1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, however, is a different, much darker beast. It’s not the blood or graphic violence that makes it so disturbing, of which there is plenty, but the brutal, uncompromising depiction of rape and its psychological ramifications.
Named after the 19th century French writer who first described the phenomenon, Stendhal Syndrome is a rare hallucinatory disorder characterised by dizziness, fainting and even hallucinations when a person is exposed to art. Anna (Asia Argento), a police officer who suffers from the disorder, is sent to Florence in pursuit of a man who has raped 15 women, killing the last two. Lured into a trap inside the Uffizi gallery, she’s captured and raped by the sadistic psychopath she was sent to capture (Thomas Kretschman). She manages to escape, but the traumatic experience changes her irreparably.
At that point you should strap yourself in for a long and bumpy ride. It’s brutal watching Anna’s transformation from young policewoman to self-harming, rape survivor as she tries to deal with her torment and the fact that the man who raped her may still be after her. Like any long and arduous journey, you’ll wonder if the destination’s really worth the hassle.
While much of Argento’s work is surreal, almost dreamlike, The Stendhal Syndrome is remarkably dark, gritty and realistic. Argento’s signature cinematography is present in some scenes, particularly at the start of the film and when Anna is in the presence of art, but it’s not as stylised as his work usually is, and it’s all the more disturbing as a result.
It’s not the graphic depiction of rape that’s so distressing. It’s the toll it takes on Anna’s fragile mental state. It’s interesting that Argento directed his own daughter being brutally raped in this film, and Asia deserves credit for taking on such a brave, complex role. Although she doesn’t quite pull off her character’s final transformation in the third act, she’s convincing where it counts.
Her richly layered performance is accompanied by some equally deep themes. The first, and most obvious theme is how art has power over us. The second, which could be mistaken for misogyny, is the perceived frailty of the so-called weaker sex. After Anna’s raped, she cuts her hair short, takes up boxing, and dresses more masculine. She hates herself for what happened, and she doesn’t want to be a victim anymore.
It’s strange then, considering the film tackles such lofty themes, that Argento cheapens it all somewhat with some appalling use of computer effects. The Stendhal Syndrome was the first Italian film to use CGI, and it shows. The CGI effect used to show a bullet passing through someone’s face is not as good as it sounds, and a laughably amateur shot of pills going down a throat is all the more ridiculous because of its pointlessness.
On the other hand, Argento’s use of music, composed by the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), is utterly brilliant. Morricone’s score is simple yet sinister, as it sets the tone of the film from its first shot.
The Stendhal Syndrome isn’t exactly a fun experience – films depicting such subject matter seldom are – but it is arguably Dario Argento’s most complex and disturbing work. It’s not a film to be enjoyed, but to be endured.
Missing the days of crazy video rental artwork? Well, apparently Arrow Video is resurrecting it in all its gory glory.
The DVD cover boasts stunning, newly commissioned artwork. Perfectly encapsulating the film, the new poster is a loving homage to the good ol’ horror covers of yesteryear. But if you don’t like it, the DVD sleeve is reversible, with a more generic DVD cover on the other side. It also comes with a large poster featuring the new artwork, as well as an interesting little booklet about the film and its background by film journalist Alan Jones.
On the DVD itself, there’s the usual chapter selection menu, the choice of Italian or English audio, and a complete Dario Argento trailer gallery featuring the trailers from all 18 of his films. Some of the trailers are almost as visually arresting as Argento’s films. Well, not quite, but they do make for interesting viewing.
None of the extras are exactly essential, but it all makes for an excellent set for Argento fans.
The Stendhal Syndrome is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.