Stendhal Syndrome, The (US - DVD R1)
Our Gabe Powers revisits one of Dario Argento's most cerebral and brutal films
Detective Anna Manni comes to Rome, hot on the trail of a notorious serial killer/rapist. Her search brings her to Uffizi Gallery, where she suffers an attack of the Stendhal Syndrome, a rare affliction that causes those stricken to faint when overcome with profound works of art. She awakens with temporary memory loss and is assisted by a kindly stranger who recognizes her symptoms. When it turns out that the kindly stranger is actually her serial rapist target, Anna finds herself stalked, and is in for a series of terrible attacks and depressing humiliations.
The Stendhal Syndrome is a rarity in the Argento cannon, and in many ways his most challenging film. Though some might argue that the non-sequential nightmares of
Inferno, or even the impractical absurdity of Phenomena (Creepers) are ultimately more challenging for the average viewer in that they run on disjointed narratives, I think that the slow motion meditation in The Stendhal Syndrome ultimately alienates on an even higher level. Even Argento fans, accustomed to the daffy logic of the director's more baroque work will often find themselves bored while watching the film. When dealing with an auteur like Argento, whose work mostly covers the same themes and is often quite self-referential, it's hard to think of each piece as a standalone composition.
The majority of The Stendhal Syndrome is comparable to Hitchcock's more cerebral work, such as Vertigo or Marnie (which were both misunderstood upon their initial releases), and deals in genuine emotions rather than thinly drawn caricatures. The hallucinatory sequences have more in common with Felinni, rather than the passionately coloured nightmare images normally found in Argento’s Bava and Antonioni inspired work. The fact that Argento aspires to something new at this relatively late point in his career is admirable, but is also the cause of the majority of the film’s shortcomings. The simple fact of the matter is that no matter how hard he tries, Argento is no Hitchcock, or Felinni. His style works better when he allows himself to be meaningless, and outside of his comfort zone he tends to meander and over-analyze. He is the poster boy for form over content.
Another possible comparison to be drawn to Vertigo is the fact that both films act as their own prequels and sequels, and are really two short films presented as one. As in Hitchcock's coup de grace, a major tragedy toggles a psychopathic switch in the main character's mind, changing her place in the story. The second half of both films is devoted to the obsession triggered at the end of the first, though Anna is trying to forget the event, whereas Scottie is doing his best to remember. In this way the two films could be seen as equal opposites.
The middle section—where Anna is trapped and repeatedly raped and beaten—is the heart of the film both in a narrative and structural sense. Though quite hard to watch, it is possibly the finest and most inspired work Argento has achieved in a decade, maybe ever again (the only more memorable sequence in the film is that of a bullet entering and exiting a woman's cheek in super-slow motion). Dario works best when exploring the ‘beauty’ of violence; a strange, oxymoronic concept that eludes proper criticism. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the violence, as proven in his best work, is immaterial, and better approached by artists with more interest in those aspects of life. Argento hasn't failed entirely here, but I'm not sure I'd call the film a success.
The incorporation of digital effects is awkward. The Stendhal Syndrome was made in 1996 when the Italian film industry had just barely dipped their collective toes in the digital revolution pool. The fact that the industry was dying at the time didn't help. Factually this is the first major Italian production to utilize the technology. The crudity of the digital work can be forgiven in the same way we forgive the crudity of early blue screen or stop motion effects, but the poor execution and use within the film cannot. Seeing an actor walk into an oil painting is a lovely one in concept, but perhaps Argento should've been more hesitant in using the new technology than he was. The first time Anna loses her self in a painting the effect is done entirely though camera zooms and editing, and I for one think it works quite well. When Ana physically walks into a painting later, the CG effect looks entirely out of place and painfully obvious. Other digital effects fair better, and are fortunately sparse.
Acting, to the contrary, whilst occasionally wooden, is very solid for an Argento film. Asia Argento is ‘interesting’ as Anna Manni, a definite improvement over her first adult role in her father's previous film, an Americanized Giallo called Trauma in both character and acting. There is something very unnatural about her performance, her mind seems to be focused on everything but the film at any given time, but her work (accidental or not) is very fitting to the role and film. The fact that she's brutally and repeatedly raped as her own father's camera looks on has been covered in better essays before, so I'll glaze over that bit of reverse-oedipal abuse.
The Stendhal Syndrome is, despite its many quirks and shortcomings, probably the best Argento film since Opera, and probably the closest we'll ever see the director get to a dramatic character study. The picture is thoughtful beyond its images, unfortunately revealing a bit too much about the director's personal understanding of other human beings (Argento is a notorious for ostracizing loved ones). As a fan I appreciate this film more than I like it, but admit it improves with each viewing. The actual psychiatric study is strictly pre-med, if you will, but the actions somehow make sense in the strange world the director has thrust these characters into. Assuming the early reviews of his Inferno follow-up Mother of Tears are correct, The Stendhal Syndrome may prove to be the dying breath of an often brilliant career.
I wrote an article a year ago where in I compared the R0 Troma and R2 Medusa releases of Stendhal Syndrome, and included a few screen caps from each. My co-writer Peter Martin also supplied some caps from the R2 Arrow release. The clear winner in the video quality contest was the Medusa release, so rather than bothering with the Arrow and Troma releases, I’m going to only compare this new release to the Medusa edition.
The Medusa disc is beautiful, and I knew it would be hard to beat. In some instances its sharper then the Blue Underground disc, and there is less overall grain and noise. However, these advantages are slight and the transfer is often inconsistent. BU’s consistency and other pluses out weigh its negatives, making it the more recommended release.
The Medusa release has edge enhancement and cross-colouration issues not found on the BU disc, which employs a more vibrant colour pallet. The difference in colour is fairly obvious from these comparison shots, with the BU disc, for better or worse, erring on the more realistic side. BU utilizes a better contrast balance, with deeper, more defined blacks, and brighter whites. BU's image definition is yards ahead of Medusa's as well.
BU also wins the framing competition at the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Medusa's transfer is cropped slightly at about 1.78:1, which causes some loss of real estate. This is most obvious when Argento places titles at the bottom of the frame. When Anna makes her way back home at after her first ordeal with the rapist the text lets the viewer know that she is in fact, back in Rome. The Medusa transfer cuts this word in half.
The video quality race was close, but Blue Underground pulls into a strong lead with its DTS ES audio track. The DTS ES track is spacious, clean, and lively. During the outdoor sequence at the end of the second act the sounds of nature are pretty intensely realistic, and fill every channel. The dialogue is all centred and clear, and sound effects move between channels with audible accuracy. The real story is Ennio Morricone's score, which has never sounded so lovely. The separation of the instruments between channels is almost unbelievably realistic.
The problem is that this awesome DTS ES track is only available in English. Most Argento films, and in turn most Italian films, are filmed in multiple languages with multi-ethnic casts. Dubbing is nothing new, and often entirely unavoidable. Asia Argento seems to have been dubbed by an animated chipmunk, and her performance is all but lost, as is any degree of menace to her character. The majority of the cast are speaking English, according to their lips, but the dubbing is pretty soulless.
The Italian dub, which is more emotionally convincing but less in sync lip-wise, is only available in a less impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mode, but it's no chopped liver. The Medusa release's 5.1 track was one of the most artificial sounding post-theatrical mixes I've ever heard. For the most part the surround channels are utilized only to create an echo chamber for the centre channel. The effect was grating, and this is why Blue Underground wins the race even when making a bit of a mistake by not offering the Italian dub in DTS.
I should first note that this is the full 119 minute (NTSC) version of the film which was released originally in Italy. The Troma release was cut at 113 minutes (according to the box art), though the cuts are pretty unspecific, more of snips then scene removals. The superior Medusa DVD was a two disc set, but only because it included both the 113 and 114 minute (PAL) versions of the film on separate discs (the extras seemed decent, but were not English friendly). The Troma release had a bunch of Troma brand garbage special features, and two really sad interviews with Argento, one of which is an Easter egg.
Blue Underground is not a studio renowned for their extra features, rather their impeccable A/V presentations. Most of us are happy just to see the kinds of films released by the studio on DVD at all. The extras on the second disc of this two-disc collection (the first disc houses only a trailer and the film) aren’t deeply enthralling, but much better than the feeble attempts made by Troma.
Disc two is made up of five interview segments, each running about twenty minutes. Though interspliced with film footage to spruce things up, the interviews are pretty dry. I personally would’ve preferred a single behind the scenes documentary featuring edited versions of these interviews. As is, a lot of the same ground is covered throughout the interviews, and if edited together the viewer wouldn’t need to start over thematically which each interview.
Argento’s interview is first, and in normal Argento fashion the director comes across as uncomfortable and a bit conceited. His information is pretty unspecific, and he glosses over some of the more controversial behind the scenes elements, like his supposed arguments with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and some of the actors, or the fact that he puts his own daughter in such a terrible position for a long segment of the film. Argento’s never been a good interviewee however, nor is he a good commentator, which is why I personally never care when a commentary track is missing from his DVD releases.
Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini, whose theories were the inspiration behind the film, gives us the low-down on the syndrome itself. Her segment is kind of like watching a college lecture in Italian, but she’s full of vital information, and is well prepared for the interview with true stories of affliction.
Special effects expert Sergio Stivaletti’s interview is probably the most entertaining one. Stivaletti has been working with special effects since well before the digital era, and his work on Stendhal Syndrome was groundbreaking in its own special way. Stivaletti has no illusions concerning the quality of the digital work, especially by today’s standards, but is proud to have taken the first Italian plunge into the digital realm. According to him the Wachowski Brothers had looked at the ‘bullet-through-the-cheek” gag when researching The Matrix, which true or not, makes an old man smile.
Assistant director Luigi Cozzi does his interview from Argento’s memorabilia and video store Profondo Rosso, where he works these days instead of making films. Cozzi has made it his business to be Argento’s historian, and starts his interview at the beginning. Large sections of the interview are spent discussing the back stories of the only two classic Argento films that haven’t yet seen an American DVD release— Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Five Days in Milan. Cozzi has the dirt on a possible R1 releases (or in Flies case any release), and the news is bad. Part of me wonders if Blue Underground prepared these interviews as part of an attempted acquisition of both titles. Cozzi’s interview is the longest, and covers the duo’s long friendship (according to interviews in Alan Jones’ book Profondo Argento, Cozzi is one of the only bridges the volatile Argento hasn’t burned yet).
Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng finished the disc. During his interview Geleng is surrounded by some of the most intriguing and bizarre artwork, and honestly I had trouble paying attention to the subtitles because of it. Geleng is a nice enough interview, and recalls his role in the film fondly. He also worked on the Argento produced, Michelle Soavi directed films The Church and The Sect, both of which are visually richer than Stendhal Syndrome.
Could this be the definitive Stendhal Syndrome release? I think it might, at least until we see a six hour director's cut, in HD and 7.2 channel digital sound, with an eighteen-part documentary about every aspect of the behind the scenes process. Until that day I'm happy to stick the definitive label on this one. The film itself comes recommended, but not wholeheartedly. Bored thriller fans looking for something they may've missed may want to give it a chance, but the unstoppable darkness of the film will turn many viewers off. Me, watching the film for the fourth or fifth time, I've decided to up my score from a 6 to a 7. I think it's more successful than I initially gave it credit for.
Now then, where's my Four Flies on Grey Velvet release Blue Underground?
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th September 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolbv Digital 5.1 Italian, Dolby Surround English, Dolby Surround Italian
Extras: Director Interview, Psychologist Interview, Effects Specialist Interview, Set Designer Interview, Assistant Director Interview
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann
Length: 119 minutes
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