Second only to Mario Bava as a poet of the night-side of human experience, Dario Argento shaped the aesthetics, themes, and visual style of the Italian horror film. Never less than original in his fetishistic displays of hyper violence, surreal imagery, and a stylistic approach that alternates between the baroque/gothic and technologically sparse, Argento popularized the Giallo (after Bava put it on the map) before investing tales of the modern gothic and urban supernatural fairy tale. The Stendhal Syndrome is a revisionist experiment on his older, more sordid giallo films, exchanging the bloody good violent set-pieces of Deep Red and Tenebrae for a more introspective approach. Delivering a beautifully photographed nightmare merging realistic psychology and settings with surrealistic lapses in time and space, this sadly neglected experiment in terror achieves more philosophical verve than any other picture in Argento's cannon. This orgy of guilt exchange, split personalities and psycho-sexual imagery further intensifies familiar Hitchcock themes by painting them in the language of the believably fantastic. After a few mishandled DVD releases, Blue Underground rescues the film, treating it with technological respect and informative extras.

In a plot that retains the ambiguities and convoluted nature of the giallo/thriller while spicing it up with shadows of expressionism, The Stendhal Syndrome features Argento's daughter, Asia, as Anna Manni, a detective whose cat-and-mouse game with a vicious rapist/serial killer results in her own victimization and self transformation. What appears to be a film firmly entrenched in realism shifts into more unsteady territory when Anna visits the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Searching for her prey amongst paintings in a crowded room, she suddenly faints, experiencing a jarring vision. This leads to her own victimization by the hands of Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), the killer, who continues to observe her as she undergoes a terrible transformation. As her ties to the killer tighten, her relationships and behavior deteriorate, becoming as violent as the all too real boogeyman she seeks to silence. When Alfredo's cruel games warp Anna's subjective perception, she, like the audience, is thrown into a nightmare where the boundaries of right and wrong, real and fantastical, are not only blurred but shattered.

Perhaps this Argento film more than any other challenges the stability and nature of our perceptions -- the tool by which we define the world and our own tenuous place within it. From the fiery hysteria of the narrative inherent in Bird With the Crystal Plumage, his first Giallo, to the surrealistic dream-like imagery of Suspiria, Argento has chosen to work in tangled cinematic tapestries, using intimate psychological catastrophes to make modern myths. The Stendhal Syndrome operates on both a literal and sub-textual level, working on the subconscious (much like the forgotten incidents that his characters must recall during moments of crises to save their lives and sanity). Psychosexual conflict and encounters with the unknown are expressed/reinforced by image and theme. At once both a scathing condemnation of our cultural obsession with violence and a subversive celebration of psychological tension, this emotionally crippling film is a unique departure. Merging such themes as skewered identity and subjective perception with the self identification of a victim with her tormenter, The Stendhal Syndrome blurs the line between right and wrong, victim and victimizer. The protagonist's shattered ego and self conflict is mirrored in the fragmented construction of the plot, chaotic and free from restraints of linear plot progression (much like the disordered shards of Asia's psyche). Also notable is Argento's emphasis on the effects of violence. This morbid yet invigorating character study spends as much time exploring the emotional and physical after shock of violence as on the bloody act itself. Dealing honestly and blatantly with rape and sexual degradation, the film leaves itself open to the tired bewailing of critics who have accused Argento of misogyny in the past -- a charge particularly foolish in light of this story. There are no such slip-shod scapegoats found in this complex and mature examination into the darker corners of human nature, no right or wrong. A lack of easily definable morals or codes is precisely the ambiguous and frightening point that the story suggests, and it is this lack of moral guide posts that makes this work one of the master's most emotionally devastating and affective. Crossing boundaries of popular taste by focusing on a female character who becomes as sexually aggressive and amoral as the criminal she is attacked by, Argento challenges even his fans, blurring lines of realism and the supernatural with the same nonchalance with which he suggests a symbiosis between victim and attacker. In short, this twisted peep-show is more concerned with the twisted workings of the mind than the baroque atmosphere, candy colored houses, or loving violence that his more popular works embraced. As such, it is more effective psychologically, daring to question our moral concepts rather than simply entertain.

This film has had a rough past in terms of DVD quality, to say the least. Troma's American DVD included uneven extras and was botched visually, a later Dutch version suffered from audio damage, and an Italian disc featured wonderful extras that were unavailable to English speaking viewers. This two disc BU release is a vast improvement over them all. A gorgeous transfer of the extended cut is without flaw. No grain or splotching is evident, and colors are clean and stunning. Audio is in English or Italian (with optional English sub). Whereas the 5.1 mix is finely balanced, the Italian version better suit's the story's mood. Mood is essential to the story in general, and both picture and sound represent it well.

Extras are a celebration of fact and inference, forming a subtext with which to better enjoy the film and understand the conditions of its formation. A Theatrical Trailer appears on the first disc, warming us up for the rush of interviews on the second DVD -- many of which were crafted by David Gregory, who perfectly captures the mood of his subjects, exploring the symbiosis between creator and art. Most rewarding is "The Director" interview, merging Argento's words with behind-the-scenes footage as he discusses the project. Other informative tid-bits are a chat with Sergio Stivaletti about the FX and a discussion with Graziella Magherini about real examples of the Stendhal condition. Luigi Cozzi weighs in on his lengthy friendship and career with Argento, and, finally, Massimo Antonello Geleng (a production designer) discusses the French Noir-inspired mood of the film.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Blue Underground
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review