Having read many negative comments about this example of 1990s Argento, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). Yes, elements of the plot are flawed - but the film works well on a number of levels. There are a number of superbly effective scenes here all framed (pun intended) in an interesting way by the introduction of a 'Stendhal syndrome' sufferer - with this itself providing a novel excursion into the hallucinatory/altered states which form the bedrock of Argento cinema.

The film opens with a young woman (Asia Argento) visiting the Uffizi Museum in Florence; as she moves amongst the works of art, she enters a trance-like state, culminating in her actually 'entering' one of the paintings before collapsing and waking in an amnesiac condition. When she awakes, she cannot remember who she is or why she is there. A well-meaning gentleman helps her to her feet and returns her to the hotel where she supposes she is staying thanks to a key fob, and there, still feeling like a completely blank slate, she tries to piece together clues to her identity. Another (brilliantly done, despite some badly-dated CGI) imaginative trip into a work of art hanging in her room allows her to remember. She is Detective Anna Manni, assigned to Florence from Rome to investigate a serial rapist and murderer now supposed to operating in the city. As these facts come back to her she realises she is not alone. Alfredo, the 'concerned stranger' from the museum, is the man responsible for the attacks on women and he has followed his would-be arresting officer back to her room.

Here begins a series of ordeals for Anna and, as she increasingly becomes subject to forces beyond her control, her grasp on reality becomes more tenuous. After being raped and pursued back to Rome by Alfredo, Anna tries to maintain her work and relationship, but her mental state grows more erratic and, although she is able to discuss what she is going through with her psychiatrist, this does not help to add any structure or security for a young woman under constant pressure. A second, gruelling encounter with the rapist feels at first like it could form a bloody finale to the film - but Argento is not done with Anna just yet. The focus of the film now shifts onto Anna's post-trauma state of mind. At first she tries to rehabilitate herself, reinventing her appearance and her persona, but her attempt at normality unravels when it seems that Alfredo is still alive´┐Ż

There are obvious giallo elements here - murder, crime, sex - but they feel secondary to the character of Anna as played by Asia Argento. I'm not a fan of all her performances - her appearance in the already poor Land of the Dead (2005) was shambolic - but here, she really works well. She effectively plays three separate characters: the passive, speechless, (literally) swooning and confused victim of the start of the film; the post-attack aggressive, active and asexual rebel; and then the born-again femme of the final scenes. Not only is she believable in all of them, but these different guises show us stages of Anna's emotional trauma. Obviously, this is not a realist picture - no one said it was - but neither is it just a flippant exploitation flick using rape and fear as convenient motifs. The rape scenes themselves are unpleasant because they are not gratuitously violent or prolonged. Instead they are stark, full of eye contact, and, like the film itself, focused on Anna rather than on the perpetrator. And, as Anna's character changes she too is capable of great cruelty and violence - this is no simple persecutor-pursues -victim shtick. We have a character who struggles to develop and hang onto personal autonomy, but her ultimate self-determination is murderously flawed and will probably mean she will never exercise her autonomy again. There is sensitivity here, too: such as the scene where, post-attack, Anna cuts off her hair. This taps into a great emotional and sexual significance which many women attach not only to their hair but the act of shedding it. And in The Stendhal Syndrome, it is not the eyes which are the windows to the soul - it is the hands, in a series of effective and understated scenes, frequently punctuated by Argento's use of the colours red (blood) and white.

Surprisingly, the Stendhal syndrome itself is sidelined as the plot moves on and it would have been intriguing to see a version of this film where the plot remained interwoven with this condition. The early scenes with their brilliant excursions into fancy formed a unique premise for the film and, although Anna surrounds herself with art during the latter stages of the film, not much is made of this. Ultimately though, there is a balance of the fantastical and the gritty here which works very well. Whilst not as lurid and symbolic as Argento's earlier works, The Stendhal Syndrome is still properly representative of his style with all the prerequisite visual verve and innovation, as well as good performances from his cast.

There are already a number of versions of the film available and now a release by Arrow Films has been added to that list. So why should you be interested in this one?

Well, the print quality here is impeccable: crisp, clear and brilliantly coloured with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (widescreen). There is also 5.1 surround sound (Italian or English dubbing) presented in Dolby Digital and, even on my incredibly bad audio equipment, the effect of this combined with the film's fabulous, haunting score is quite startling. It really makes a difference to the impact and the whole atmosphere of the film. This is also an uncut version: from the start to end of the credits the film's a lengthy 1 hour and 54 seconds! As extras go, there is a 39-minute Argento trailer reel - pretty exhaustive - and a trailer for the main feature (this seemed to stutter a little on my player, but hopefully that's just in my case!) So, if it's the quality of the print rather than a host of extras which interests you, then this is definitely one for your collection.

Review by Keri O'Shea

Released by Arrow Video
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review