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.


La sindrome di Stendhal (1996) #2


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

SISTERS (1973)




Margot Kidder as Danielle & Dominique, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Bernard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Olympia Dukakis / Screenplay Brian De Palma & Louisa Rose / Original Music Bernard Herrmann / Cinematography Gregory Sandor / Editor Paul Hirsch / Produced by Edward R. Pressman / Directed by Brian De Palma

I saw a murder, and I’m going to prove it!

It’s not that Brian De Palma’s Sisters is a bad film, but rather that it makes some decidedly dubious mistakes.. or does it? Well, yes it does, but to what extent these were intentional, it’s difficult to quite decide. It’s that familiar De Palma dichotomy, to find yourself confused as to whether you are eating sirloin steak or a thick layer of cheese. Every simplicity is layered with an enigmatic undertone, whilst each bold epiphany is counter set by a certain unbelievability. This duality both attracts and frustrates the filmgoer in equal fashion.. perhaps the familiar domain of the auteur filmmaker? But one thing is certain, De Palma will not be told, and nor should he be, since we love him for his tenacity of personal vision, and utter disregard for the ordinary solution.


It’s perhaps unfair to be too critical of Sisters, since it was nevertheless a pretty accomplished piece for a Director still finding his sea legs. Considered as the beginning of a progression of cinematic ideas, it whets the appetite very nicely.. but viewed in the singular, it somewhat stumbles and loses its footing once too often. It’s not so much a matter of yelling at the screen ‘Don’t go in there!’, but rather, ‘Who the hell would go in there?!’ Incredulous though we are throughout the story, nothing quite prepares us for the concluding journey that murder victim Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) makes for the finale, when he arrives bound-up in a sofa at a deserted station next to a Canadian cow. How do we know it’s a Canadian cow? Well, someone stuck a Canadian flag next to it. That cow seems to be the crux of the whole film, somehow.. If you believe in the cow, then you believe in the nature of the film. As avant guard touches go, that cow is a pretty wonderful one, but even David Lynch might scratch his head a little trying to justify it’s reason for being there.


As if Ray Boulting’s Twisted Nerve hadn’t upset the disabled community enough, by creating a fearful parallel between Downs Syndrome and murderous psychotic tendencies, ‘Sisters’ managed to go one step further and tar all twins with the same phobic panic. The plot of Sisters spends much of it’s time attempting to prove whether or not Margot Kidder has a twin, which in itself is no evidence of foul play in the context of the film, nor indeed are Siamese twins particularly synonymous with mental illness. One might naturally then be perplexed as to why on earth Danielle & Dominique are in a mental hospital to begin with, and not merely in a State hospital or private clinic. Okay, this is a horror film, so we should be prepared to drift into an exaggerated reality, but still, reason and logic must still prevail, or else we enter into the absurd.


De Palma of course had Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo in mind for his psychological study on twins and split-personality, even to the extent of convincing Hitch’s old composer Bernard Hermann to come out of retirement to write the score in direct homage. Psycho, Vertigo and Sisters all exploit mental illness, but in Hitchcock we get a clear-cut cause established for the psychosis. In Psycho we have the life-long problems associated with an overbearing mother, and Vertigo gives us Kim Novak playing the part of a damaged woman to deceive James Stewart, but winds up competing with her other self for his affections.


With Sisters, we have an interesting little dynamic which adds a curious series of flips to the usual Hitchcock archetypes. On the surface we’re presented with a straightforward good twin / evil twin situation, but then we come to realise that these twins were once conjoined, now separated. This might be fuel enough for a study on identity, but De Palma doesn’t stop there, he throws another spanner into the works *Spoiler Alert*, by revealing that the ‘bad’ twin died years earlier during an operation to separate the two. Also, given that we learn of the sexual advances of the twin’s Doctor towards one twin, whilst drugging the other for sexual ‘privacy’, we come to realise that the bad twin had every reason in the world to turn out a wee bit funny in the head. Flip once more, considering that when the surviving ‘good twin’ has her little murderous episodes and becomes her ‘evil’ twin, she is in actual fact acting out how she believes her sister would be, but in actual fact it could be said that this so called good twin, was always the evil, considering the lengths she would go to for some ‘alone time’ with her Doctor lover. Indeed, we even discover in flashback that the Doctor favoured his lover in the separation, sealing the sad fate of the other to die on the operating table.


Shot in a low-budget tv style, Sisters mirrors elements of the Psycho ‘look’, which Hitch developed out of necessity, when Studio concerns over his alarming subject matter reduced him to shooting Psycho on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents Tv Lott. Somehow the impression I get with Sisters though, is more that of a Columbo murder mystery, with it’s 1970’s haircuts and sense of camera off on a wander in search of clues. Especially since we have this long build up to the murder after half an hour or so, which is plotted out with hints and mistakes for our reporter to follow up later on. Not that Columbo had to deal with too many dangerous paranoid schizophrenics.

Sisters - Onset


Original Poster Art Poster art (Re-release)