Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1996)

12. The Stendhal Syndrome
La sindrome di Stendhal

“The Stendhal Syndrome” isn’t typical Argento but, unlike many of the atypical films that would follow, it’s not bad Argento either. It’s far more psychological then his usual output, while also being much darker. While his previous films approach violence in a theatrical fashion, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is a gritty, nasty picture. It’s an uncomfortable film because, obviously, all of the rape in it. For a filmmaker that has such an obviously… Problematic relationship with women, to see him approach the vilest of violation has potential to be… Off-putting. (Especially with his daughter in the role of victim.) For what it’s worth, Argento never seems to be getting off on the violence. His depiction is honest and unflinching but never eroticized.

While Asia Argento has proven herself to be a good actress over the years, her performances in her father’s films are highly uneven. Here she is given a juicy, dramatic role. Her character undergoes a gauntlet of emotional trauma, first having her mind assaulted by the title syndrome, before being physically assaulted (several times, in drawn-out, disturbing sequences) by the film’s antagonist. Thoroughly broken by the experience, Asia spends the second half of the film traumatized. Instead of descending into weepy depression, the film seems more interested in exploring her distressed, distorted psyche. A sequence that especially stands out is when she turns the table on her horny, pushy on-off boyfriend.

After she meets and falls for a new guy, the film goes in a sadly predictable direction. The killing starts again, you see. Despite a somewhat disappointing conclusion, Asia gives one of her best performances here, something recognizable even under a lousy dub.

As the nineties continued, seemed Dario became less interested in using his traditional style. “The Stendhal Syndrome” is definitely less stylish then his last film, but there are some arresting visual moments. The titular condition is brought to life nicely, despite some awkward, ugly CGI. The ocean of a painting comes sweeping up to Asia and she falls into it, absorbed into the art. Later, another on-set of the condition is cleverly used to give us a little insight into our protagonist’s history and the plot. In my favorite scene, Asia literally steps into a painting of a waterfall, letting it wash over her. (There’s also a bizarre, CGI shot of a pill being swallowed that is there for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.)

The movie isn’t without its suspenseful moments either. In my favorite moment of old-style Argento suspense, his camera roams a room full of giant sculptures, of leering faces and Greek statues, suggesting that anyone and anything could be behind them. In another scene, Asia flees from her attacker, who could be right behind her.

The movie certainly doesn’t skimp on the blood but instead focuses on the viciousness of the attacks. While this is kind of disappointing, it fits the grim tone of the film. The scene where Asia is kidnapped and held captive in the attacker’s lair for days is certainly unnerving and disquieting. The movie seems to wrap up most of its plot during the halfway point. The film introduces a new love interest for Asia which works okay but, since the killing has to continue, there’s only so many ways for the story to resolve itself.

To see a film that had been challenging and intelligent sink into formula like this is pretty disheartening. But, for the first hour and a half, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is an effective, nasty piece of work. It lacks the style of classic Argento, but makes up for it by being a successful thriller in its own right. [Grade: B]

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