Monday, November 28, 2011

An Affinity For Insanity: "The Stendhal Syndrome"

I wrote this review of my favorite Dario Argento film, The Stendhal Syndrome, in April 2001 for a DVD/CD/LaserDisc retail store called Laser Exchange. As a cinema freak in my late teens, working at Laser Exchange was the best job I could possibly have had. Talking to phone customers on a headset made me feel like I was Spike Lee's Girl 6.  Checking in and out movie rentals made me feel like I was one of Kevin Smith's Clerks . And writing DVD reviews about the virtues of my favorite filmmakers made me feel like the American ambassador to EuroHorror.


An Affinity With Insanity: A Look At 'The Stendhal Syndrome'

When Dario Argento’s La Sindrome Di Stendhal hit Italian theaters in 1996, it was already one of Argento’s most highly anticipated films. Now, five years after its release, it remains the most controversial film among his fans. I’ll keep the synopsis extremely succinct, since I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s surprises and since many of you reading this have seen this film already.

Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is a police officer from Rome working for the city’s Anti-Rape League. Anna is on the trail of serial rapist Stephen Blue (Thomas Kretschmann), who has been stalking the women of Italy, but who now appears to have set his sights on Florence. Anna travels to Florence, going on an anonymous tip she seeks out Stephen at the Uffizi Art Museum. And that is all I am giving away about this movie.

Part of the reason that the fan reception was so chilly is perhaps because the film is so vastly different from Argento’s previous works. It had been close to fifteen years since Argento last delivered a bona fide giallo thriller, and the plot line of a woman tracking a serial rapist seemed like the perfect vehicle for Argento to make a provocative comeback to the genre with which he is most fondly associated. So it certainly came as a surprise that the film was actually a psychological drama. Fans may have been expecting a violent, suspenseful thriller, but instead they got a thoroughly unique psychological drama that merely flirted with the giallo elements once inextricably linked to Argento. 

Since the release of his1969 directorial debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento managed to invite immediate comparison to Alfred Hitchcock thanks to his poundingly suspenseful thrillers. The Stendhal Syndrome is far removed from those early films of his career. Nonetheless, it is arguably his most Hitchcockian effort. The film boasts Argento’s most  precise and linear narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It incorporates the “wrong man” paranoia of so many Hitchcock classics in a manner so inventively twisted that the Master would indubitably love it. And most of all, it offers an incredibly complex portrait of its two protagonists, a dissection as intense and incessantly fascinating as that of James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie.

The Stendhal Syndrome is also the most distinctly Argentoan film of the director’s career, in spite of how different it may seem from his earlier works. The film is missing the dazzling camerawork that wowed audiences in films like Tenebre and Suspiria and the pounding rock soundtracks that make Argento’s brand of terror so distinct. However, these are merely technical aspects of Argento’s films; the thematic elements are present in full force. Argento has always depicted violence as lush, beautiful, and thoroughly sexual. Never has this technique been as blatant as it is in this film, and as such, never has the violence in an Argento film been so disturbing or so unsettlingly believable. From the casting of a heartthrob-type actor to play a sadistic rapist to the S&M quality of Anna and Steven’s first encounter, Argento pushes his viewer’s buttons in a way he has never done before. This is not to suggest that the film in any way glorifies rape, or even depicts rape as a sexual act (as is the case with most portrayals in Hollywood films). To the contrary, Argento’s sexualization of filming rape is so disturbing that he achieves in painting rape as the most violent of crimes.

While The Stendhal Syndrome may not boast the Goblin soundtrack that made films like Deep Red and Suspiria so memorable, the film does reteam Argento with early collaborator Ennio Morricone. The legendary Morricone (Once Upon A Time in the West, The Untouchables) had previously scored Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” in the early 1970s, and here he delivers what may be the finest score of his career. Mixing haunting, wordless female vocals (his trademark feature) with an eerily simple string melody, The Stendhal Syndrome’s music is every bit as disturbing and deceptively beautiful as the film itself. It perfectly underlines Anna’s unnatural obsession with Stephen, and adds to the hallucinatory atmosphere of her surreal descent at the hand of The Stendhal Syndrome. 

Sadly, it seems that every DVD incarnation of the film is lacking in some department. The UK release was a heavily censored edition (unless you were lucky enough to get one of the “accidental” uncut copies in their first pressing). The French edition boasted a knockout transfer, but had a disappointing audio mix with minimal surround use. And while the U.S. DVD had an impressive sound mix and some new interview clips with Argento, its soft, incorrectly framed transfer was a letdown. Additionally, it was a Troma release, and came complete with a cheesy Lloyd Kaufman introduction to the film and the usual batch of X-rated interactive goodies. Fun stuff, for sure (and who doesn’t like Troma?), but let’s face it: Troma Entertainment does not exactly spell out artistic credibility, and thus serves to slap the film in its face. 

The Dutch Film Works DVD is the fourth incarnation of the film on the format, and overall, it is arguably the best. First off, we get a solid 1.85:1 transfer of the film. The transfer is not enhanced for 16:9 screens as the original promotional materials indicated, and this is certainly a let down. It is, however, correctly framed, and looks quite good. The transfer comes from a great looking source print, though the colors are not as vivid or the image as sharp as the French DVD. It’s not reference quality, but judged on its own merit (that French DVD is damn near impossible for any film to top in the visual department) it is pretty impressive. This disc is, however, definitely better than the U.S. DVD. Troma’s edition of the film was too bright, resulting in washed out colors and a white haze that covered the screen throughout the film. Here all of Argento’s shadowy lighting is accurately represented, with more well defined colors and a much sharper image overall. (Viewers should take note that I was watching the film via PAL-NTSC conversion, which can downgrade the quality of the transfer itself.)

The U.S. DVD of the film  presented the film in a Dolby Surround soundtrack that was active enough to be mistaken for Dolby Digital 5.1. The French disc, on the other hand, was essentially limited to the front speakers, with a bare minimum of surround channel usage. This disc falls in between the two. The surround channels are definitely active here, though they are not as noticeable as on the U.S. DVD. However, the soundtrack is never overbearing, and the surround sound is generally better integrated with the front speakers to create a rich sound experience that probably represents Argento’s vision better than the previous DVD releases.

Although one could argue about its status in the audio/video department, this disc clearly boasts the best supplemental features of any of the “Stendhal” DVDs. The prize extra here is the terrific Michele Soavi documentary Dario Argento’s World of Horror. This 75 minute documentary has not ever been particularly scarce since its 1985 release, and unlike the U.S. DVD edition, this one does not contain chapter stops. However, getting it as an “extra feature” is certainly preferable to shelling out $29.95 for it on a separate DVD, so you really can’t go wrong here. Additionally, it’s one hell of an entertaining documentary. It contains clips from all of Dario’s directorial and production efforts beginning with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and going right through Phenomena and Demons. The clips are interspersed with lengthy interviews with Dario as well as interviews with members of his various crews. You also get to see behind-the-scenes footage of his films, including the filming of the louma crane shot in Tenebre, the final sequence of Phenomena, and even the scoring sessions for Suspiria. It makes a great introduction to the director’s career for new fans and a terrific tribute for longtime fans.  The uninitiated Argento fan should be forewarned though, because the film inadvertently manages to spoil the final twists of Four Flies on Grey Velvet and even Deep Red

Next up we have a theatrical trailer for the film. This is the “official” international trailer for the film, and not the lame 30 second exploitation blip used by Troma to promote the film as a schlocky gorefest. It’s the same trailer as featured on the French DVD, only this time its credits are in English and the voice-over and vocals are strangely absent. It plays more like a teaser than a theatrical trailer, and thus offers an appropriately succinct glimpse of the classy yet brutally violent film. The extras are rounded out by a still gallery and talent files. Optional Dutch subtitles are also included. 

I may be going out on a limb by saying this, but I consider The Stendhal Syndrome to be the best film of Argento’s entire career, besting even Suspiria, Deep Red, Tenebre, and Opera. The film is simply brilliant, a rich drama/thriller that explores its characters with a sympathetic intensity scarcely seen in American thrillers. Argento has crafted his most mature and accomplished screenplay (an area of filmmaking for which he has never been particularly revered), and proves that even without the flashy visuals and loud music, he can still craft a profound and uniquely frightening film.

In another rarity for Argento films, The Stendhal Syndrome  boasts a brilliant, star-making performance from lead Asia Argento. Ms. Argento not only dissolves any prejudices the viewer might have about being cast as the lead in her father’s film, she also delivers one of the finest performances of the 1990s. As a driven cop whose ambition and verve may not be enough to save her from a descent into madness, she brings a quiet complexity to the role that exceeds the capability of her American contemporaries. That her ability shines through in spite of behind dubbed by another actress (one might guess the backers wanted a more “American” voice for the English soundtrack) serves as a testament to the talent and promise of this extraordinary performer.

If you’re wondering why I have not explained the seemingly crucial meaning behind the film’s unique title, it’s because it is not so crucial after all. It does serve a symbolic purpose to the telling of the story, and is certainly vital to the opening sequence. However, first time viewers need not know what it means before Anna does. Once you’ve seen Argento’s incorporation of it into the film, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

There has yet to be a truly perfect DVD release of this nearly perfect film, but this edition from Dutch Film Works is certainly the closest thing to it. You get a better visual transfer than the U.S. DVD, a better audio transfer than the French DVD, and better supplements than either of the aforementioned versions. To top it off, you also get the best artwork of the three packages-a big plus, in my book! So for fans of Argento (Dario and Asia), this is simply a ‘must-own’. 

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