Anna Manni is a Rome-based policewoman with the anti-rape unit who has a strange mental condition – she is emotionally overwhelmed when confronted with works of great art. Termed the Stendhal syndrome after the French writer who first wrote of it, this affliction leads Anna into the clutches of the serial killer/rapist she is pursuing.
After the relatively tame, unsuccessful Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome was Dario Argento’s full-blooded attempt to try something different with the murder mystery genre he mastered back in the 1970s. There’s plenty of familiar Giallo elements of course – a deranged killer who preys on innocent women, the killer’s nemesis trying to maintain her sanity as she becomes increasingly obsessed with him, plus a twist in the tail. But the big difference here is that the killer’s identity is never kept a secret – Argento reveals him to be suave, sharp-suited Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann) within the first fifteen minutes, as he ambushed Anna in a hotel room and subjects her to a brutal rape. The subsequent focus of the film is not upon Anna trying to catch him – her superiors send her to a psychologist to recover from her ordeal while they get on with the investigation – but her attempts to deal with her own mental conditional.
While Argento is a master at orchestrating cold, clinical thrillers, he’s not so hot on getting into the minds of his characters. His daughter Asia puts in a brave performance, but she’s ill-served by a script, written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, that largely fails to turn her into a believable, likeable protagonist. Regular visits to a shrink don’t reveal much about her, and some of the devices Argento uses to signify her fragile mental state are a bit clumsy – hitting her brother too hard whilst boxing, stabbing herself with paperclips, smearing her body in paint and rolling around the floor. As for the Stendhal syndrome itself, it is actually a real condition, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it's one of those ludicrous devices Argento loves to throw into his plots – vengeful ravens in Opera, or the imprinted final image on the retina of a corpse in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
But full credit to Argento for not trying to make a crowd-pleasing, commercial thriller. The Stendhal Syndrome was his darkest, nastiest film since Tenebrae, and despite the levels of violence inflicted upon women throughout his filmography, this was the first time he'd tackled sexual violence head on. Particularly gruelling is the treatment dished out to his own daughter, and although never exploitative, some of the scenes make for tough viewing. There are some gruesomely surreal moments too, including Alfredo waving at Anna through the hole he's blown in another woman's cheek and the messy puncturing of a man's gullet with a pair of rusty springs.
Anna's condition provides Argento with plenty of opportunity to indulge his visual muse. Paintings come to life around her as she enters the worlds upon the canvasses; in one bravura shot, she literally steps through a frame into an expositional flashback. The camera swirls with its usual aplomb, lingering as much on the spectacular art and architecture of Florence and Rome as upon the death and chaos of the story. In addition, Ennio Morricone, who scored Argento's first three movies, provides a classy, eerie soundtrack.
At 115 minutes, The Stendhal Syndrome is too long, and twist is almost exactly the same as the one that ended Tenebrae. This isn't first-rate Dario, but for all its flaws, it's a movie that improves on repeated viewings and is certainly a more interesting, ambitious film than anything he's attempted since.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.