Stendhal Syndrome, The (US - BD)
Gabe excites at the release of the first ever Argento movie on Blu-ray disc...
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 Suspiria and 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 often find themselves bored with the director’s deliberate pacing. But 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, less story driven work, like Vertigo or Marnie (which were both misunderstood upon their initial releases), and deals in genuine emotions rather than thinly drawn caricatures, though the hallucinatory sequences have more in common with Felinni 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, Antonioni 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 Vertigo comparison is that both films are really two short films presented as one, and act as their own prequels/sequels. And as in Hitchcock's coup de grace (because no matter what anyone says, Vertigo was his best film), a major tragedy toggles a psychopathic switch in the main character's mind, changing his/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. Stendhal Syndrome is ultimately Argento’s anti- Vertigo.
The middle section—where Anna is trapped and repeatedly raped—is the heart of the film both in a narrative and structural sense. Though massively 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). Argento 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 no one can call the film a total 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 lovely in concept, but perhaps Argento should've been more hesitant in using the new technology than he was. The first time Anna loses herself in a painting the effect is done entirely though camera zooms and editing, and 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 slightly better, and are fortunately sparse.
Acting, 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 practice. There is something very unnatural about her performance. Her mind seems to be focused on everything but the film, but her work (accidental or not) is very fitting to the role. 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. The Stendhal Syndrome may prove to be the dying breath of an often brilliant career.
I now own four copies of Stendhal Syndrome—the original R0 Troma release, the R2 Medusa release, Blue Underground’s R0 DVD release, and this brand new Blu-ray, also courtesy of our friends at Blue Underground. A few years back I wrote an article comparing the R0 Troma and R2 Medusa releases, and included a few screen caps. My DVDActive 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, until, of course the Blue Underground disc came around. In my original review of that DVD I once again compared image quality, and the BU disc was the clear winner.
So what does this Blu-ray version have to offer? Well, it isn’t the most incredible high definition transfer I’ve ever seen, but the differences are distinct, even on my 42 inch set. The overall transfer is still quite grainy, but the size of the grain is much finer this time around. It seems that Argento’s choice in film-stock had its limits, as Stendhal Syndrome hasn’t aged as well as some of his older anamorphic features. The heavy digital compression that plagued some of the brighter reds on the DVD release are all gone, but the heavy grain makes for a similarly ‘noisy’ experience. The film is only twelve years old, but the image quality is pushed to a pretty steep limit in hi-def. I can only fault Blue Underground with a few small flecks of artefacts, though, there likely isn’t anything more to do with the materials.
The increased details are easy to notice (check out the human faced fish), but not so completely obvious that fans are going to be blown away. The real shocker is the colour pallet. Every subsequent major release of Stendhal Syndrome has managed to pull more colour intensity from cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s masterful compositions, and I really didn’t think there was anywhere to go from the BU DVD. The DVD release was a little more ‘realistic’ than this release, but realism was never Argento’s forte. Stendhal Syndrome may not be one of the director’s most visually impressive features, but this disc is a fine teaser for what Blue Underground can hopefully do with his classics (if only the Weinsteins didn’t own Suspiria).
I had some expectations for an increase in image quality on this Blu-ray disc, based on the compression limits of DVD, but I really and surely was not expecting anything beyond what Blue Underground had achieved with their original DTS ES audio track. Apparently the advantages of DTS-HD Master Audio aren’t lost, even on my system, which only allows for the DTS Core. The general volume levels are higher all around, but not comparably to the DVD release—I was actually able to pick up on several audio details I’d missed before without the old audio blowing out my speakers. The spatial relationships are wider here too, without sacrificing the clarity of the centred dialogue track. The track is still mostly a front channel affair, but the rear channels still dance with stylized ambiance from time to time, though there’s a slightly artificial nature to some of the more aurally intense scenes. Ennio Morricone’s haunting score is also very aggressive in HD sound. Once again I’m impressed by the sharp separation of the instruments between channels, and the realistic warmth in which they take over the track.
But this brings us to the same problem that hurt the DVD release – the awesome DTS 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, but in this case Asia Argento, known for her sultry deep throat 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 EX mode. The Italian track is a bit flat, lacking much of the crisp channel separation, improved details, and dynamic range that make the English DTS-HD track so exciting.
I should first note that this is the full 119 minute 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, a studio not renowned for their extra features, rather their impeccable A/V presentations, has ported over all the none-HD extras from their DVD release. I’m not even going to bother writing anything new about the five interview segments, each running about twenty minutes. Though inter-spliced 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 finishes 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 interviewee, 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.
At the end of my last Stendhal Syndrome review I asked if the DVD release could be seen as the definitive home video version of the film. The rules haven’t changed for standard definition DVD, but visually and audible standard definition simply can’t compete with competently produced high definition. A lot of viewers are going to be turned off by the heavy grain, but I’m so impressed with the increased colour vibrancy and the new DTS-HD Master Audio track that I’m still going to recommend a double dip for Blu-ray capable fans. The extras are exactly the same, but this is an upgrade nonetheless.
Now I’ll ask again—where's my Four Flies on Grey Velvet release Blue Underground?
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 18th November 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby TruHD 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX English, Dolby Digital EX Italian
Subtitles: English, 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