The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonacelli, John Quentin .. / Based on the novel by  Graziella Magherini  /  Screenplay  Dario Argento  /  Music   Ennio Morricone  /  Cinematography  Giuseppe Rotunno  /  Editor  Angelo Nicolini  /  Produced & Directed by  Dario Argento


Hyperkulturemia / Florence or Stendhal syndrome: “.. symptoms that feature disorientation, panic, heart palpitations, loss of identity, fear and dizziness, and beset certain foreign tourists in cities like Florence and Venice, where centuries of intensely vivid art and architecture overwhelm them and destabilize both the grounded space on which they stand, and their temporal mooring in the present.. more vertiginous than uncanny, more existentially dangerous than exotically strange, a ‘fugue state’.. a flight from or loss of the awareness of one’s own identity (from the) emotional stress.”

Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture’ by Vivian Sobchack


 Dario Argento is always closest at home when he has a decent psychological disorder to hang his hat upon. ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ manages to bewitch, bother and bewilder in equal fashion. What most critics and audiences ave hitherto agreed upon is that the first 20 minutes or so are truly astonishing, but that it all starts to come apart at the seams from then on in. This isn’t quite true though, since there’s most definitely plenty more to discover and to be impressed by during that other hour, but it’s rather that Argento doesn’t make it an easy ride. With a plot that involves sadistic rape sequences at it’s core,  a series of truly baffling plot twists, and the need for some seriously outlandish suspensions of disbelief. It takes an audience familiar with the dreamlike qualities of Giallo cinema, European arcane fairytales, and the dark eccentricities of Argento’s visions to cope and stick with it to the end. Ultimately it’s a very rewarding cinematic experinece, though a decidedly disconcerting one.

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“On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. 
Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing to fall.”

-Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal)-

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On the surface Argento’s films appear to be about fairly conventional horror subjects, populated with serial killers, witches, supernatural forces and the demonic.. but it’s mostly window-dressing we come to realize, a construct to allow for explorations of the psyche and of the Succubus erotic.. haunting the characters sexualised emotions, and  leading the audience into dark recesses. The conceptual subtext then, is resolutely dominant throughout, leaving the plot secondary to visual and emotive concerns. It must be said that over the years Argento’s plots have increasingly become sketchier, still dutifully following the lurid, exploitative traditions of the Giallo genre, but losing much of the sense of pace necessary to create an entertaining journey.. a certain pitfall to this particular dreamlike and hypnotically visceral style of cinema.

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To some extent ‘Stendhal’ stands as one of the last of Argento’s films to entirely please his followers. In recent years his output has either fallen short of the mark, or else drifted off of course entirely. His latest, an adaptation of Dracula sank unceremoniously without a trace, in the straight to video quagmire.

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Over the years Argento himself has frequently sighted Hitchcock as his principal source of inspiration, and even explored the subject in his 2005 film ‘Ti Piace Hitchcock?’ (Do you like Hitchcock?) but perhaps Brian DePalma is a more fruitful comparison to make in terms of Neo-noir style and a preoccupation with the more lurid imagery of the Femme Fatale. From the German Expressionistic beginnings of Pabst’s Lulu (Pandora’s Box), to the eroticism of the Italian Giallo Pulps, European cinema has always been less restricted by censure than Hollywood, free to ‘play’ and to explore with a giddy fervour. Attracting American filmmakers, influencing and inspiring in equal measure.. but also scaring off Hollywood investors who would sooner back familiar, tried and tested material, than go out on a limb with something *cough* ‘artistic’.


‘The feeling is so profound, that it borders on
pity. All this speaks clearly to my soul.’

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“Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious.” (Dario Argento)

Interstingly DePalma himself has found himself moving towards European productions, toying with the continental in ‘Femme Fatale’, and excelling with his much improved remake of Alain Corneau’s film ‘Crime d’amour’ as ‘Passion’, starring  Noomi Rapace (‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ etc) , Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris’) and Karoline Herfurth (‘Perfume’) in three roles that would make Argento and Hitchcock clap with glee.


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Guinness Tv advert : ‘Get the picture’ with Rutger Hauer (1991)


La sindrome di Stendhal (1996) Poster Art #2 La sindrome di Stendhal (1996) Poster Art



The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Il gatto a nove code / Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
4 mosche di velluto grigio / Four flies on grey velvet (1971)
Le cinque giornate / The Five Days (1973)
Profondo Rosso / Deep Red (1975)
Suspiria (1977)
Inferno (1980)
Tenebrae (1982)
Phenomena (1985)
Opera (1987)
Trauma (1993)
The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Non ho sonno / Sleepless (2001)
Il cartaio / The Card Player (2004)
La terza madre / Mother of Tears (2007)
Giallo (2009)
Dracula 3D (2012)


ASIA ARGENTO   b. 20th Sept. 1975 (Rome, Italy)


Asia Argento



Cloud Atlas 2012


Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant / From the novel by  David Mitchell  /  Original Music Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek & Tom Tykwer / Art Direction High Bateup, Uli Hanisch, Daniel Chour & Sabine Engelberg / Cinematography Frank Griebe & John Toll / Editor Alexander Berner / Producers Stefan Arndt, Alex Boden, David Brown, Jose Luis Escolar, Grant Hill, Andy & Lana Wachowski / Direction Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski

Everything is connected


Cloud Atlas 2012


The Merriam Webster English dictionary describes a ‘Folly’ as, ‘an extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste’. A word on the collective lips of several notable reviewers in regards to the sprawling film adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel ‘Cloud Atlas’. On the surface this seems like an apt description of the near 3hr, multiple roomed, eclectic jigsaw of a film. Is Cloud Atlas merely that? Perhaps not, since a folly is an unlivable structure, with no purpose beyond an extravagant whim and a self indulgent prayer. The occupants of this unruly mosaic are very much alive and kicking.. like fully fleshed out occupants trapped in a dream, grasping at some governing structure, and questioning where they came from and where they are headed. In this sense we are firmly in meta-fictional Denis Potter territory, where the lines between omniscient author and powerless character becoming indistinct and blurred. 


“He knows I am trying to escape. The Author.. of ‘this’ book. The book I am in.  The Book ‘you’ are in.. ‘those’ two men swinging their legs over there are in.

‘Hide and Seek’ by Dennis Potter (pub. 1973)


Cloud Atlas 2012


The problems with Cloud Atlas are fundamental and quite insoluble, since they go to the very heart of the matter at hand. The novel by David Mitchell is inherently unfilmable, and the nature of its multiple characters with multiple roles is so fraught with technical problems as to cause a multiple headache for creative and viewer alike. Though the make-up and prosthetics team do an admirable and highly inventive job, the task of convincingly switching genders and ethnicities was never going to be an easy one. To turn Korean beauty Doona Bae into a convincing befreckled Scot reminds me of that awful ending to ‘In a league of their Own’, where for no good reason the cast are rapidly aged as time speeds on to the present day. Usually this type of effect is utilized for short scenes, so if there are any problems with the effect, then they’ll hopefully be out of the way before anyone unduly notices. Cloud Atlas is stuck with them in every other scene of course.. poor devils.


Cloud Atlas 2012


As to structure, author David Mitchell describes his novel as having been constructed as a sort of ‘Pointillist mosaic’, which indeed the film has followed suit with, dividing screen time between seven separate time zones, consisting of a journey aboard a 19th Century slave ship.. a composers quest for perfection set during the 1930’s.. espionage shenanigans with Halle Berry during the 1970’s.. a mini brit-flick comedy for a sort of present day.. a William Gibson inspired future Japan, with the hypnotically beautiful Doona Bae.. and a post-apocalyptic future-future with Tom Hanks’ hotch-potch back-slang (and  a seventh time period that I won’t spoil the plot by revealing). Of these, by far the most convincing is the search for the mysterious Cloud Atlas Sextet’ during the 30’s, with the exceptional Ben Wishaw, who turns in the sort of performance worthy of several Oscars & Baftas, but whom no doubt will once again get overlooked come the awards season. The composer tale is certainly the best thought out, even if it doesn’t really have much of a connection with the broader tale itself (what exactly happens to the Sextet, aside from it’s later echo in a futuristic Geisha Bar? ..


Cloud Atlas 2012


..okay, so maybe it’s the general theme music of the film, but..), the mystery appears to be of more importance. This is in fact the general problem. Initially we are presented with a complex, impenetrable epic, which ultimately unravels into a set of answers which are somewhat simplistic and rather derivative. We start to perceive a grand epiphany in these scattered and fractured events, but eventually the mystery outweighs the solution. It may well be that the novel itself has a more effective explanation and set of reveal moments, but for me, the Soylent Green moment (I’m trying my best not to spoil the film) was a decided letdown. The ‘whole’ certainly was not greater than the sum of it’s parts. Perhaps though the old adage is true, that it is not in the final destination, but rather in the journey, that we find the greatest revelations. In the case of Cloud Atlas, we most certainly have some beautiful and poignant moments, but I just wish the ending had been a little more rewarding after nearly three hours.


Cloud Atlas 2012


Though ‘Cloud Atlas’ had a decidedly mixed response, it was regardless an interesting film in critical terms. Reviewers certainly rushed forward to either denounce or to praise the film, and it does indeed seem to be ‘one of those films’, which time will most likely be kinder toward. Quite suitably really, since Cloud Atlas was not shot in Hollywood, but at the heart of the old European Film Industry, at Studio Babelsberg in Germany.  The self-same stage that saw the creation of such German Expressionist wonders as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, ‘Die Nibelungen’ & ‘Metropolis’.. where Dietrich perched on the edge of a barrel to saucily sing ‘Falling in love again’ for ‘The Blue Angel’, and in more recent years, Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds and Stephen Daldry’s  ‘The Reader’. In the true spirit of bold, European filmmaking, we have a films which are as surprising as they are ambitious, created far away from the monotony of the Hollywood product. Personally I can put up with a few faults here and there, so long as there’s passion and creativity in spades. The future looks bright for the German film industry, with ‘Hansel & Gretel’ (Reviewed later this month) already impressing with it’s delightfully raucous European humour. Forthcoming attractions from Studio Babelsberg include, Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’ and Brian Percival’s intriguing ‘The Book Thief’. The Cloud Atlas may not be a perfect film, but it is most certainly an interesting and bold one. Let’s just hope Studio Babelsberg keeps up their brave line in productions, because we greatly need them.


Cloud Atlas 2012



“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”