Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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In the context of what’s come before in Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome miraculously seems like an answer to my chief criticism of Dario Argento’s output. He seems more fixated on the cinematic flourishes that pervade his films as opposed to doing anything interesting with some of his characters or aspects of his narratives.

The Stendhal Syndrome is about Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) who’s on the trail of a sadistic serial killer- Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Manni is afflicted with a condition called Stendhal Syndrome. It causes someone to become dizzy and devastated when viewing stunning pieces of art. In their battle of wills, Grossi attempts to exploit this weakness while Manni attempts to heal herself via sessions with a therapist.

In contrast to Argento’s earlier efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is a film that’s less firmly rooted within the horror genre. In fact, it fits squarely within the genre of twisty ’90s thrillers such as Seven (complete with a shocking end reveal). But the film that’s mostly on Argento’s mind is Vertigo. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal classic, Syndrome concerns itself with a controlling character who attempts to remake a woman in his perfect image.

Conceptually, this seems like an interesting idea, particularly within the context of a  relationship between a serial killer and a committed detective. However, in execution, the movie only seems to play to this idea with its ending twist. In fact, it reframes the entire relationship as Grossi is seen a controlling person who had a masterplan for breaking down Manni. This seems like a far cry from Grossi’s modus operandi of torture and torment as opposed to ownership and control. The retcon goes into the realm of preposterous to evoke Hitchcock’s film.

Instead, The Stendhal Syndrome is much more interesting as an illustration of how a woman deals with rape. Manni primarily overcompensates by showing very masculine traits (most prevalent in her relationship with boyfriend- Marco). She also reviles sex as and any sense of weakness. During this stretch, the idea of Manni being like her tormentor is theorised and is much more interesting then where the film goes with the “control twist.”

As a portrait of someone whose being psychologically damaged by a traumatising event, it feels sensitive and resonating. Most of this comes from Asia Argento’s daring central performance that flickers between victim and aggressor with believable and captivating power.

Unfortunately, this level of care is not present in Argento’s direction. Throughout he tends to over egg the pudding, whether it’s the unnecessary use of CGI in mundane situations or distracting camera moves that unnecessarily point upwards. Argento’s signature style of a slow creeping dread (courtesy of camera moves that evoke a looming omnipresent predator) is gone and replaced with something far more average. Giuseppe Rotunno’s hazy cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s eerie dreamlike score pick up the slack in providing the film’s atmosphere.

The Stendhal Syndrome never rises above being an average curiosity. While it’s good to see Argento focusing more on character, his exploration in some areas lack shading and direction insofar as thematic focus is concerned. But there’s something special in Asia Argento’s performance that has an emotional truth even when the film does not quite lay the tracks down for her eventual path.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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