In 1817, Stendhal walked into the Santa Croce church in Tuscany when he suddenly lost his sense of equilibrium. “On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart,” Stendhal wrote in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio Calabria. “Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall.” Thousands of Florentines have been similarly afflicted while staring at the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Raphael and Michelangelo. Psychiatrists call this phenomenon The Stendhal Syndrome, the inspiration for Dario Argento’s 1996 film of the same name. Starring Asia Argento as Detective Anna Manni, The Stendhal Syndrome considerably improves after multiple viewings. Just when Argento begins to get to the crux of the “fresco chaos” that overwhelms Anna after she visits a museum, the film’s rhetoric takes a discordant shift. Argento abandons his painterly obsessions and the film takes a turn for the De Palma: Anna dons a wig, becomes a giddy representation of her previous self and nothing is quite as it seems.
As Anna walks through the streets of Rome, the film’s pictorialism echoes that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. Statues similar to those that overwhelmed Ingrid Bergman’s Katherine seemingly burden Anna with the lingering presence of Rome’s cultural past. Anna walks into a museum and is immediately entranced by the power of the fresco. She becomes dizzy and falls to the floor, splitting her lip on a display table. Anna’s blood leaves a precise mark on her dress. This is the first of many references to the purity associated with the color white and the shame attributed to the color red. Outside the museum, the longhaired Anna bumps into the beautiful Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), who returns the young woman’s lost purse. Argento pays remarkable attention to the Neapolitan beauty of his lead actors. “Great works of art have great power,” says an understanding Alfredo. Anna, though, seems unfazed by Alfredo’s beauty, let alone his guesswork. The rolling up of a taxi’s window fascinatingly superimposes his face onto hers, an indication that the two will become intricately bound in a game of psychological cat and mouse.
Visual effects coordinator Sergio Stivaletti ( Phenomena, Opera) fantastically morphs the film’s frescos into illusory gateways into Anna’s subconscious. Less successful, though, are his inside-the-body effects (pills going down Anna’s throat, a bullet through a woman’s cheeks). Anna seemingly falls asleep only to become haunted by a painting that transforms itself into a door that reveals a gruesome crime scene. The film’s rapist has struck again. An upward shot from the point of view of the dead woman reveals an elderly couple staring down at Anna and Inspector Manetti (Luigi Diberti). Anna returns to her room through her door/painting, which casts a beautiful pattern of light onto the outer sidewalk. This stunning array of shots calls attention to Argento’s painterly concerns and the unreliability of Anna’s gaze. While lying in bed, she is visited and raped by Alfredo. She later awakens in his car, forced to watch as he rapes and kills another woman. Lying by Alfredo’s side is Anna’s snow globe of Michelangelo’s David. Anna flees from this unusually erotic torture chamber, passing a window where the elderly couple keeps watch.
Though there’s no question that Anna has been raped (see the bloody sheets and a doctor’s affirmation), Argento fascinatingly questions the role of fantasy in Anna’s violation. Anna rises from her hospital bed, cuts her beautiful long hair and the rest of Stendhal Syndrome is the same. A psychologist, Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli), diagnosis her with the Stendhal Syndrome. (Conveniently situated on his desk is a book on the subject as well as a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.) Even though Anna’s obsession with the film’s paintings continues, it takes a backseat to her cryptic transformation. At the behest of Dr. Cavanna, Anna begins to paint in what at first appears to be a too-obvious attempt at coping with her pain. In retrospect, though, the film’s rhetorical shift compliments Anna’s psychotic split.
Police officer Marco Longhi (Marco Leonardi) is sent to protect his ex-girlfriend against a possible second attack. Marco suggests that he and Anna get back together. She reacts violently, turning Marco around and shoving him against the wall. She mock rapes him while stuffing her hand down his pants. Marco is emasculated, reduced to a cowering punching bag in an obvious game of sexual role-reversal. Key to the failure of these scenes is Asia’s performance. (Asia’s part was originally offered to Bridget Fonda and then Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her voice was dubbed against her wishes and the film suffers as a result.) Just as transparent is Anna’s visit to her father’s home, where one of her brothers laughs at his sister’s boyish appearance. This sequence also provides the trivial backstory of how her deceased mother introduced a young Anna to the pleasures of art.
After Stefano is pegged as the film’s murderer, Argento still frames one rape sequence from the point of view of the killer. Faceless to the camera, the killer silently does away with a female victim. There is no apparent logic here because Stefano is mercilessly loud killer. Is this Argento’s desperate attempt at introducing the possibility of an alternate suspect? Despite the state of Stefano’s body when it was thrown into the river, the possibility that he survived becomes plausible after Anna begins to receive a series of crank phone calls. Since Stefano’s earlier phone calls are easily audible to the audience, the silence of the calls may point to an obvious red herring. None the less, these stylistic choices fascinatingly mirror Anna’s dilemma.
Anna stands before Marco when she receives a call from Stefano, who supposedly expresses his jealousy over her recent romance with a young art student, Marie (Julien Lambroschini). Marco, oblivious of this affair, has seemingly abandoned any hope of reuniting with Anna. Marco picks up the phone and a click is heard—the killer has hung up. “He said he knows we’re in love, that we make love,” says Anna challengingly. Marco is noticeably stung by the comment though he’s more troubled by Stefano’s concern with the men in Anna’s life than he is with his own remorse. Marco says, “That doesn’t seem like him. That’s not his way of operating.”
When Stefano’s body is pulled from the river, the alternate killer theory becomes plausible. After Marie’s murder, Cavanna’s visit to Anna suggests the psychologist himself might be responsible. Marco suspects him to be the killer but finds him hacked to pieces when he reaches Anna’s apartment. Since the spectator never really believes Stefano survived his fall into the river, the revelation that Anna took on Stefano’s identity after his death may come as little of a surprise. Argento sacrifices some logic in trying to keep Anna’s new identity under wraps (if she’s the only perpetrator, what is the rationale behind the click Marco hears over the phone?) Still, the fact that Anna would go to such desperate lengths to make Marco jealous is a chilling testament to her ramifications of her trauma.
During an earlier trip to Stefano’s home, Anna discovers her snow globe among his possessions and a print of a Narcissus painting with a message attached: “Disturbing. Morbid. Who knows what effect it would have on Anna?” While Kretschmann’s Stefano seems conscious of himself as a killer Adonis (perhaps Michelangelo’s David personified), Argento only vaguely taps into the idea that narcissism is an instigator of chaos. Stendhal Syndrome, though, ends on a chilling note. Anna kills Marco and is caught by a group of male police officers that try to calm her down. All she sees is a pack of hungry males trying to tear her clothes apart. This disturbing scenario evokes Anna’s conflicted relationship with the hostile frescos that have repeatedly challenged her concept of reality.