The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) (1996)

The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) first published by

The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) was the second film by Dario Argento to star his daughter Asia. The title of the first, Trauma (1993), might equally have served here, given that The Stendhal Syndrome focuses less on its rapist/killer than on the scars, physical and psychological, that are left on survivors by acts like his. Anna Manni (Argento), a detective with Rome’s Anti-Rape Department, repeatedly falls victim to the sadistic serial offender whom she has been pursuing, and must then struggle with the fallout of her own horrific experiences at his hands. “He’ll never go away,” Anna declares of her repeat assaulter Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), “He’ll always come back. Always.” As, halfway through the film, she declares these words from her hospital bed, the camera significantly cuts to her own father (John Quentin) hovering grimly nearby – the first of several male figures in her life, along with her two brothers and even her fellow cop and sometime boyfriend Marco (Marco Leonardi), who, whether actually abusive or not, fill her with androphobic anxiety. If the very idea that Papa Argento should cast his own daughter as a character who must endure unspeakable sexual torments brings an uncomfortable frisson, Anna’s discomfort in her relationship with her own father explicitly reflects and restages this tension within the film. Anna’s deep trauma – resulting from recent events and possibly from childhood ones too, and evidenced by her self-harming, her image changes and her amnesiac episodes – dominates Argento’s film, and is indeed its subject. 

The film’s actual title derives from a peculiar psychosomatic condition which afflicts Anna: a disorienting, hallucinatory fugue state experienced before works of art (and particularly associated with the art-filled city of Florence, where the disorder was first recorded). Sensitive and vulnerable, Anna disappears into paintings, forgetting herself and often fainting as she imagines the static imagery coming to life. This serves as a potent metaphor for the immersion of viewers into an engaging film, and the fragmentation of self that occurs when we are made to identify all at once with a story’s violators and victims – in other words, when we are confronted with a film precisely like The Stendhal Syndrome. Argento had previously used artworks as a mise en abyme in/of his films – e.g. in his feature debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), with the evidentiary painting at its centre. Here he takes this motif much further. The opening title sequence features a series of paintings, scrolling like the frames of a film reel through a projector; and in the very first sequence we see Anna entering a literal arthouse, the Uffizi in Florence, where she succumbs to the overwhelming power of Bruegel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus. The underground lair to which Alfredo abducts Anna is as much art as shooting gallery, its walls covered in creepy graffiti left by junkies. As part of an attempt to rebuild her damaged psyche, Anna herself takes up therapeutic painting, producing monstrous, screaming images that are very revealing – at least to anyone who knows the film’s not entirely unpredictable twist – and even covering herself in paint so that she becomes a living, breathing artwork in her own right. Almost inevitably, her new boyfriend, the French student Marie (Julien Lambroschini), is also a scholar of the Great Masters. In this film, art is everywhere, bringing pleasure and pain, concealing and revealing; expressive, escapist, entrapping, it is both life itself (as the very wallpaper of the film’s structure) and its distorting mirror.

Part of Anna’s dysphoria is expressed in gendered terms. After surviving the first assault on her, Anna cuts her hair short, leading one of her brothers to comment: “You look like a boy.” When Marco comes over, she spurns his advances with the words, “I’m not your woman anymore”, before aggressively taking him from behind in a grotesque imitation of a rape (as he begs her to stop). “I wanted to fuck him like a man, the way that men do it,” she subsequently tells her psychiatrist Dr Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli), expressing her fear of “something that’s inside of me.” Anna’s tormentor proves adept at disguising his voice as a woman’s, and Anna’s eventual relationship with Marie begins with her interest in his name, which she had assumed was a woman’s but which is unisex in his native France. After escaping Alfredo’s clutches again, Anna covers her short hair in a platinum blonde wig. The intention is to conceal a facial scar with these long golden locks, but the wig makes her simultaneously resemble both Alice through the looking glass (especially when Anna wears a light blue dress) and a dragged-up Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In this fluidly schizophrenic approach to gender identity, the contours of rape-revenge, and of predator-prey, are shown to be unusually symmetrical, even reversible, on a messy palette of transference and projection. Indeed, the film might equally have been called The Stockholm Syndrome

“He left his mark on me,” Anna tells Dr Cavanna of the deep cut in her face. “They say that after two years and four operations, the scar will disappear. Do you think it will?” On the disturbing psychological canvasses of The Stendhal Syndrome, her question will keep returning, as some traumas prove too deep-seated to allow for fast and easy recovery. “Let’s try never to use words like ‘crazy’”, Cavanna suggests to his patient – and sure enough the film, despite all its swooning CG-inflected visuals and stalk-and-slash tropes, always treats Anna herself with seriousness and sympathy.

Summary: Argento’s artful exploration of a rape victim’s twisted trauma.   

Anton Bitel