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Dario Argento has carved out a reputation as one of the most artistically creative film directors and, although his violent and graphic movies are an acquired taste, he has won a legion of admirers of his flamboyant style. The Stendhal Syndrome, or to use it’s proper name, La Sindrome di Stendhal, was directed by Argento and released in 1996. It starred Dario’s daughter, Asia, in the second of three collaborations. This is the uncut version of the film, restoring seventy four seconds of previously censored material.

Stendhal Syndrome, The
Before you ask, Stendhal Syndrome is a disorder that involves dizziness, panic, paranoia, or madness caused by viewing certain artistic or historical artefacts. In this movie, it affects Anna, a detective who’s intent on capturing a vicious serial rapist known as Alfredo. She eventually tracks him down to an art gallery, where, overcome with the images that she sees, she catches his attention and he introduces himself. Later that evening, Alfredo breaks into her hotel room and rapes her, forcing her to watch as he kills a victim. Following this disturbing incident, Anna finds that she has built an emotional attachment to the rapist and, plagued by frequent mood swings, she becomes convinced that he will return for a horrific reunion.  

As you can guess from that plot summary, this is not a barrel of laughs. The Stendhal Syndrome is a dark psychological thriller with a fair amount of gore and some very harrowing scenes. Unfortunately, it is guilty of a sin that many of Argento’s films commit: that of style over substance. Set in picturesque Italy and concerning a disorder brought upon by art, we are afforded many images of beautiful paintings and sculptures accompanied by a haunting, though overused, soundtrack. For the first few moments of the film this is all that we experience and it’s an astounding effect. Sadly, when the dialogue and plot kicks in, things take a downward spiral.

Despite the original angle of exploring this fascinating disorder, the film develops into a thoroughly clichéd way. While this is certainly more character driven than many of Argento’s films, it still suffers from a muddled narrative where the director shows us curious scenes and then feels he must explain them in laborious detail mere moments later.

At key points, the film descends into the horror genre with some bizarre twists (characters appearing out of thin air) and an occasional reliance on ropey special effects. Both aspects are completely redundant and rob the film of the atmosphere that the music and cinematography have initially achieved. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that this has been dubbed. Originally filmed in English, Dario Argento has a peculiar penchant for re-dubbing his features into all required languages. Although the dialogue generally matches the lip movements (as much of the actors are speaking English), the actual dub is not overly effective. It is another unwelcome distraction.

Stendhal Syndrome, The
The Stendhal Syndrome is not comfortable viewing, but remains watchable throughout; maybe due to the fact that most viewers will be waiting to see if their predictions for the finale will come true. Nine out of ten times they will, as the conclusion is easily guessed at least half an hour before the audience gets there.

This is a movie that is stuck between two genres: brainless horror and intelligent thriller. Operating together they can do little but cancel out each other. While this is certainly more thrilling than similar Hollywood attempts ( The Cell springs to mind), it is just as reliant on spectacle rather than content.

Stendhal Syndrome is presented in anamorphic widescreen at a ratio of approximately 1.66:1. It may be a shock to discover that this movie is less than ten years old, as the poor picture quality makes it look like it was filmed in the 1970s. Bright colours aren’t well represented, and for a film that centres on art, the picture is strangely devoid of any real colour. It’s also grainy and there are the occasional specks of grime. While a sub-par picture is to be expected from anything outside of Hollywood, this is noticeably bad.

A 5.1 mix would have been ideal, with the haunting music and frequent moments of echoed silence working well to create a great atmosphere. Unfortunately, the film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and the two used speakers fail to create a pleasing effect when they’re called upon to handle dialogue, music and action. The dubbed dialogue track is especially bad, sounding strangely distant and unconvincing, like we’re listening to tracks from two different films. A further gripe is that there is no option to watch the Italian version of the film (and subtitles are not included either).

Perhaps we’ll get a documentary on the syndrome? Nope. Short filmographies for the cast and crew? Nope. A trailer, then? Nope. What we get is…a big fat nothing.

Stendhal Syndrome, The
One for Argento fans (Asia and Dario) only. This is the definition of a bare-bones release, representing a complete lack of effort to make this a worthy purchase. While it’s good to see the inclusion of previously censored material, they do little to improve the movie. This is a collection of creepy thrills, graphic scenes…and very little else.