Monday, September 20, 2010

The Stendahl Syndrome

Posted as part of Operation 101010 (and to coincide with Asia Argento's 35th birthday)
gialli / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 74 of 100

The opening scene in Dario Argento’s ‘Phenomena’ has a young teenage girl left behind on a school trip and murdered by an unseen killer. Her face is smashed through a glass window. She’s decapitated and her head plunges into a river and is carried along by the raging current. The schoolgirl is played by Fiore Argento, the director’s daughter.

The opening scene in ‘The Stendahl Syndrome has Detective Anna Manni attend the Uffizi Gallery in Florence where, afflicted by the titular psychological condition, she suffers a fainting spell, falls and catches her mouth on the corner of a marble plinth, blood spattering across the cool floor of the gallery. The policewoman is played by Asia Argento, the director’s other daughter.

All things considered, Fiore got the better deal. As ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ progresses, Anna is targeted by Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), a serial rapist who has just started adding murder to his repertoire. He’s present at the gallery, where he steals her gun and finds out where she lives while she’s unconscious. Shortly afterwards, she’s attacked in her home and sexually assaulted. Passing out, she regains consciousness in Alfredo’s car where he’s busy assaulting another woman, who he casually murders in front of Anna. She escapes and, at the behest of the police psychologist, returns to her home town to recuperate. Alfredo follows her and, despite a round-the-clock guard posted by the local constabulary, stages an abduction. More rape follows.

What the fuck was going through Argento’s head when he cast his then 20-year old daughter in this role is not something I want to think about. What it must have been like on set boggles the mind. What kind of direction did Argento give Kretschmann, for Christ’s sake? “Okay, Thomas, in this scene you’ll be raping Asia for about five minutes, she’ll roll back her head as if she’s about to pass out, so you’ll slap her a couple of times to keep her awake, then you’ll take a razor blade out of your mouth and we’ll get to the really good part of the scene. Did I mention I’m her father, by the way?”

It’s this aspect – dude directs his daughter getting psychologically tormented and brutally raped for the first half of the film – that gives me such a hard time with ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’. Any other actress (um, except Fiore Argento of course) and the gruelling scenes between Alfredo and Anna would still be as provocative and uncomfortable; as it is, they’re provocative and uncomfortable for the wrong reason: an almost incestuous, meta-textual reason that takes you out of the narrative and the characters’ lives and reminds you that you’re watching a film.

Anything that throws you out of a film or a book by reminding you that you’re experiencing a piece of fiction that has been manufactured is by its own definition a serious flaw. If you’re subsequently unable to re-engage with that film or book on the same level, then it’s a flaw that characterises the work as a failure. So is ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ a flawed work or a failure?

Personally, despite my reservations about Argento’s casting decisions, I’d be hesitant to deem it a failure. Although I stand by my assertion, made elsewhere on this blog, that ‘Phenomena’ remains the last great Argento film – ‘Phenomena’ caps a run of at least half a dozen truly great movies whereas ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ follows the moderate disappointments of ‘Two Evil Eyes’ and ‘Trauma’ and preceeding everything from the fuck-awful ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to the bargain basement ‘Mother of Tears’ – it can’t be denied that‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ takes some interesting turns, benefits from committed and passionate performances from its leads, and has the distinction of being the last truly visually accomplished work on Argento’s CV.

It’s the very concept that allows Argento to go crazy in some of the early scenes. Stendahl syndrome – named after the novelist (best known for ‘The Scarlet and the Black’) – also known as hyperkulturemia results in the sufferer undergoing psychosomatic symptoms in the presence of works of art or overwhelming natural beauty. Argento opens the film with a wordless seven-minute sequence that tracks Anna’s journey to and around the Uffizi Gallery, generating a sense of the off-kilter right from the outset. Inside, visceral and sometimes grotesque Renaissance canvases and sculptures seem to overwhelm her. As she loses consciousness, Argento depicts her plunging into one of the paintings. Later, in one of the film’s best moments, a fully conscious Anna finds herself drawn to – and then into – a huge canvas depicting a waterfall (the location becomes meaningful as events take a darker turn).

If nothing in the second half of the film matches the bravura of these moments (indeed, Anna seems to overcome the Stendahl Syndrome), Argento makes the bold decision to change horses in midstream and turn a psychosexual cat-and-mouse thriller into a study in aftermath. A shade after the hour mark, he delivers a scene most directors would have saved for the climax, then has Anna slowly try to reintegrate into a normal life following her trauma at Alfredo’s hands. She changes her appearance, undergoes a series of brittle appointments with her psychologist, and tentatively begins a relationship with a sensitive young art student. Then she thinks she sees Alfredo on a crowded street.

Between Anna’s transformation from brunette to blonde and the directorial sleight of hand surrounding a late-in-the-game murder, the Hitchcockian parallels are explicit. Anyone who’s been paying attention will see where Argento’s going with the denouement long before a riverbank revelation leaves the film with only one possible outcome. While no more downbeat than the ending to, say, ‘Deep Red’ or ‘Tenebrae’, it’s emotionally downbeat whereas those films are viscerally downbeat. Nonetheless, Argento plays fair with the ending and doesn’t try to sweeten it with any false notes of reassurance.


Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah, I really can't watch an Argento movie post Opera without the primary thought being "Hoo boy."

Neil Fulwood said...

And that, sir, is a fairly polite response given how egregious some of his post-'Opera' output is!

Troy Olson said...

Hmm, you actually make this sound better than I remember it. I could never get past the whole filming a rape of your daughter thing that you so perfectly analyze. God, even now as I'm intrigued at the latter half of the film (I can only vaguely remember how it ends) I can't really bring myself to want to watch this again.

Those screencaps of Asia and the painting do prove that it is nice to see that Dario remembered how to setup a nice visual image every now and again in this era of his filmmaking.

Simon said...

I just watched this, and I have to disagree with you on it being visually accomplished. Maybe I'm just watching a weird version (from Netflix, and I find their stock to be questionably organized), but the cinematography in this movie is so goddamn horrible, makes the whole thing almost unwatchable.