Blue Underground // 1976 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // September 11th, 2007
Works of art have power over us.
The Stendhal Syndrome could have been the quintessential Dario Argento film. It deals with art and its effects on people; sexual perversion and sadism; symbiotic relationships between hunter and hunted; and personality transference. It's not pure giallo, in that it's not really a murder "mystery" (the criminal is identified in the first few minutes), and it's not a supernatural tale, though the titular affliction causes hallucinations that provide the opportunity for a number of surreal scenes.
Unfortunately, Stendhal never comes together. It's an indulgently long film that starts promisingly but loses its way long before the halfway mark. Dario Argento's movie gets a fresh DVD treatment in The Stendhal Syndrome: Special Edition.
Police Inspector Anna Massi (Asia Argento, Last Days) is sent from Rome to Florence to track down a rapist who has just added murder to his menu of crimes. Acting on a tip, she goes to the Uffizi Gallery, where she believes the rapist will be that day. There she becomes overwhelmed, as though the artwork has taken on a life of its own. She passes out, and when she wakes up, she cannot remember where -- or who -- she is.
Anna is experiencing The Stendhal Syndrome, an actual affliction suffered by some people when they are in the presence of great art.
But fainting at a fresco is nothing compared to what Anna is going to face when the rapist she is tracking decides to track her.
Director Dario Argento (Deep Red) is a great sensory stylist. What we take away from his films often has less to do with the story than with images and sound. Important plot points are explained in clumsy speeches. We rarely get to know characters well enough to care much about them, and what motivates their actions is often murky, but we do remember their strikingly gruesome demises.
With his unique style, suspenseful plots, and occasional outright references ("wrong man" themes, underlying sexual deviations), Argento has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock. In some ways, The Stendhal Syndrome had the potential to be his most Hitchcockian, with its focus on a (beautiful) woman's crumbling psyche (Suspicion), a bizarre psychological impairment (Vertigo), and violence rooted in twisted sexuality (Psycho, Frenzy).
Unfortunately, Stendhal ends up being Argento's Marnie, a film of complex ideas that suffers from problematic execution.
A core flaw of both films is its casting of the central character. For Marnie, Hitchcock chose the beautiful-but-limited Tippi Hedren; for Stendhal, Argento cast his beautiful-but-limited daughter, Asia, who is incapable of giving the tour-de-force performance necessary to put this one over. A huge part of the problem is that she is just too young for the part. She was 20 when much of Stendhal was being filmed and looks even younger; it is just not believable that this girl is a seasoned police inspector. She is also a lightweight actress in a role that demands considerable emotional heft. That her voice in the English-language version was overdubbed by an actress who sounds like she's 15 doesn't help; the Italian dub is preferable, but the performance is still lacking. (Argento films his actors speaking English without sound, then post-dubs).
The script, unfortunately, presents a number of logic shortcuts, and presents its characters sometimes saying and doing things that defy explanation. Late in the film, Anna dons a long, blonde, obviously fake wig (it's really not becoming), and no one questions her when she wears it while doing her police duties. In another scene, she is being guarded by her former lover (also a cop) and wants to go meet her new lover. Even though old lover already knows about new lover, Anna decides to sneak out, so she goes into the bathroom, runs the bath, and goes out through the window. Didn't it occur to her that a bathtub running for more than an hour might arouse suspicion, or that if she's in so much danger she needs to be guarded that sneaking out might not be the best idea? Situations like this abound in Stendhal Syndrome; rather than helping advance the plot, they merely slow it down.
At 119 minutes, the film is also far too long. There are really two separate, but co-dependent, stories being told here, and Argento adds business that is supposed to help explain Anna's psychological make-up (including an extended trip she takes to visit her family), but really doesn't add a lot of depth to the proceedings.
Ultimately, The Stendhal Syndrome is a frustrating, unsatisfying experience, a film where you lament "what might have been" rather than celebrate what is there.
In Stendhal, Argento and his effects coordinator, Sergio Stivaletti, employed new (at the time) digital effects technology. Some sequences, such as a blue pill going down a dig-ex model throat, seem like kids playing with a new tech toy. Digital effects are also used in Anna's hallucination sequences, and since we are viewing these sequences through the character's unreliable perspective, it's easier to accept their comparatively low-tech nature.
If you're a fan of the film and own the earlier Troma release, feel free to relegate it to coaster status. Blue Underground's presentation is a blow-out. First up is a near-pristine anamorphic transfer. There are five audio options, three English, two Italian, with the Dolby 5.1 Surround particularly great. Unfortunately, it is not possible to toggle from one audio to the other with the remote.
There is a full disc of extras consisting of interviews with Argento, Stivaletti, the assistant director, the production designer, and Graziella Magherini, whose book on Stendhal Syndrome helped inspire Argento to make the film. All in all, a very nice package.
While I have some issues with this film, it is still head-and-shoulders above what is currently being passed off as "suspense" by American filmmakers. While there are some unsettlingly violent acts committed against its characters (mainly women), don't confuse this with the glut of "torture porn" thrillers being unloaded at your local multiplex. While Argento doesn't really take full advantage of his surroundings here (much of the film is shot in boring offices or apartments), there are some astonishing-looking scenes, including one in an underground "junkie lair."
Stendhal also contains one of Argento's most disquieting set pieces, an assault near the beginning of the film that involves a razor blade. It is an uncomfortably brilliant sequence, as brutal as anything you'll see, and disturbing on a number of levels.
As always, Ennio Morricone's score is excellent and eerie.
The Stendhal Syndrome is not the strongest entry in the Argento canon, but it is still worth a look. Blue Underground gives this film a royal release. For Argento fans, this one's a no-brainer, and non-fans should at least consider a rental.
Inspector Massi, turn in your gun and chill.
Blue Underground, you are ordered by the court to continue giving us releases that exceed our expectations.
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Director: Dario Argento" (20:00)
* "Inspiration: Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini" (22:00)
* "Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti" (16:00)
* "Assistant Director: Luigi Cozzi" (22:00)
* "Production Designer: Massimo Antonello Geleng" (23:00)
* Dario Argento Site
* DVD Verdict review of Suspiria