Like Alfred Hitchcock, who Dario Argento paid homage to in the 2005 mash note flick Do You Like Hitchcock, the old Italian master seems to have entered a sort of uneasy old age. Like the Hitchcock of Frenzy and Family Plot, Argento seems to work in fits and starts. Sometimes he seems to be courting mainstream audiences (see The Card Player), other times he's fully in the luxuriously creepy and hypnotic groove that nobody else can quite do – but even then his flicks are more "interesting" than "good."
The Stendhal Syndrome his 1996 horror-thriller is clear from the second category of late-era Argento. The film follows the misfortunes of a young police officer, played by the laconic Asia Argento, as she pursues a mysterious serial rapists/murderer. The trail leads her to the Uffizi gallery of Florence where she finds out that she suffers the eponymous syndrome – the symptoms of which, if the film is to be believed, include intrusively soundtracks, swirling editing, and falling victim to some very cheesy CGI effects. This would be bad enough for our heroine, but things get even worse as the serial rapist and murder catches and violates her.
Now is filming your own daughter's rape scene a brave directorial move or just sleazy? Before you make a decision on that, I want to point out that previously, in a gratuitously weird CGI shot, Argento took the camera down Asia's throat. Innovative camera work or freaky Freudian incest moment? You be the judge.
Despite the brutality of the attack, the police officer escapes the rapist. He gets away and she ends up on administrative leave. The impact of what has happened to her has knocked her life out of whack – though the film seems to strangely hedge its bets about whether it was the attack of Stendhal syndrome or her being the victim of rape that has so impacted her, as if Argento seems to think that fainting in the presence of classic art and being raped where emotionally equivalent.
Eventually, growing increasingly isolated from her co-workers and her boyfriend, the officer returns to her hometown. Unfortunately, the rapist follows her and she is captured yet again. The rapist holds her prisoner in what appears to be an empty sewer shaft and rapes her, again. (Is Argento twice as brave for filming his daughter's repeated rape, or is this twice as icky?)
At this point in the movie we get into a handful of twists that I cannot get into without giving up what is supposed to be the chief mystery of the flick. Suffice it to say that things get weirder from her on in.
Rarely do I see a movie that I cannot form a clear opinion of. The Stendhal Syndrome is one of those odd works. Compared to my favorite Argento flicks, like Susperia and Phenomena, it has a more gritty, less dream-like quality. This is not to say it is more realistic. Instead, it doesn't have that sort of hypnotic power that the other films, which lose in a world of their own making, have. This is a strangely flat, toneless film. This isn't to say that it is poorly shot. But for a filmmaker like Argento, the film's dull colors and inert sets are strange. (He even manages to shrink the Uffizi gallery - TSS being the only film ever allowed to film inside – into a strangely generic feeling place. How could the director of Susperia not exploit a set like the Uffizi gallery?) The plot is compelling, but marred with what can only be described as overt moments of incestuous weirdness. It is, by Argento's own standards, trashy. Finally, unlike the female leads of Susperia and Phenomena, Asia Argento's cop is purposefully less likable and sympathetic, a point which we can't discuss further without stepping on the end of the flick.
In the finally analysis, what to make of this curious flick? If you're not a fan of Argento, I'd avoid it. This oddity doesn't really showcase the rich, literate style of horror that's made him a legendary horror director. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of the man, then this flick is worth seeing if only to see the famed director work in an unusually restrained visual mode while attempting to work with such strangely unhinged personal subject matter. Borrowing the Rest Stations of the A5 Autoroute Movie Rating System from Roger Ebert, I'm giving The Stendhal Syndrome a reserved, but not necessarily condemnatory, Km 211 Le Bois Moyen rating.
FUN SCREAMIN' FACT:
It has been theorized that legendary horror writer H. P. Lovecraft suffered from Stendhal Syndrome; only in his case it was architecture and not paintings or sculptures that set him off. In a private letter to one of his friends, he described reacting to the architecture of New York City with such overwhelming emotions that he nearly fainted away in the street. Some have theorized that the surreal, monumental, and otherworldly architecture that appears regularly in Lovecraft's stories was inspired in part by his own extreme reactions to architecture.