Nine More Nights of Argento #3 – “The Stendhal Syndrome” (1996)

AsiaPaintLast October, I saw the first nine films directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. With the spooky season upon us again, I’ve decided to check out the back-half of Argento’s filmography, from 1990’s George A. Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes to 2012’s notorious flop Dracula 3D.


The Stendhal Syndrome sees Dario Argento breaking out of his comfort zone in more ways than one. Certainly the director’s most challenging and unsettling film to date, it’s a stripped-down psychological drama that ditches the elaborate murder sequences and kitschy setpieces we’ve come to expect from the horror maestro, replacing them with a bleak study of the effects of sexual violence on the human psyche. It’s also perhaps his most frustrating film, given that it aims so high and stumbles so often.

Asia Argento plays Anna Manni, a young policewoman who suffers from an intense psychological reaction to works of art. She travels to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to capture a serial rapist and murderer, only for a painting to set off her affliction and enable the killer to kidnap and rape her. She manages to escape, but the traumatizing experience has changed her into a much darker person. As she pursues the man that attacked her, the film takes a midway plot turn that reminds one of a similarly wild course change in the middle of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo, and from there on, it wouldn’t be fair to reveal much else.

While the film lacks the crazy spectacle and sheer joy of Argento’s best works, there is a lot here to recommend. The film places a lot on young Asia Argento’s shoulders and she definitely delivers a nuanced and powerful performance, even when her father’s screenplay requires her to deliver the usual rounds of unnecessary exposition. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno seizes the opportunity to blend beautiful artwork and scenery with Anna’s dark and chaotic world, while frequent Argento collaborator Ennio Morricone composes a haunting score that perfectly compliments this dreary story in a way that a Goblin synth party would just feel weird.

Alas, with Argento operating so far outside his wheelhouse, the director’s eccentric tendencies tend to often work against him. In contrast to the somber tone of the film, some cartoonish mid-90’s CGI is used to gratuitous effect, illustrating pills bouncing down throats, bullets whizzing through heads, and paintings melting like a Windows 95 screensaver. The slogging two-hour run time is also an issue, especially with so many plot threads left swinging in the breeze, including the titular syndrome. The sexual violence of the film, while appropriately stomach-churning, also begins to feel gratuitous and exploitative, made all the more uncomfortable with the presence of Argento’s daughter.

A third of the way into my tour of Dario Argento’s much-maligned “later” films, I have to say that I’m cautiously impressed. The 1990’s has seen the Giallo master try new things, excel at his old tricks, and even find a muse in the family. Let’s see how this next film goes…



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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Features, Reviews

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