One of the key things in setting up a horror movie for a director has to be mood: if you get your mood right, then you've taken your first step into a larger, more controlled mis-en-scene. Dario Argento is such a bad-ass with mood that one wonders if he comes on to his sets like one of those gunslingers so ready and able that you can feel him draw his eye on a scene in his own way before anyone else can do it so. The mood he sets up, and keeps going on in a disturbing manner, for the Stendhal Syndrome involves a character who we see in the opening scenes walking along in a busy street, go into a museum and just staring at the paintings. But something else is going on: she (Asia Argento) keeps feeling dizzy, looking around mesmerized, not in a good way. She suddenly stares at a painting, feverishly, and sees herself going into the painting itself, in the deep blue ocean of a landscape - and then she awakes, not sure where she was before in the museum. A man comes to help her outside since she left her purse behind, but is this man who he says he...
OK, Argento can take it from here. This is a story that may, in fact, be more disturbing than his films from the 1970s. This doesn't mean it's quite as unforgettable or masterful - a few little things and a couple of potential big things keep it from greatness - but it's never less than interesting as part of Argento canon. One of the things to notice is that, unlike in the past, Argento isn't interested this time in fetishizing the aspect of the "mystery killer" throughout the film. On the contrary, the killer is right out in the open, a truly, brilliantly insane rapist-killer played by Thomas Kreutschman, who helps Asia outside the museum... but then returns when she's on the phone with him (one of those awesome "JUMP" scares when he sort of magically appears in the room), and rapes and beats her. Argento likes this actor in the role, and he's so effective in that we hate him so much and can't wait to see his just desserts gotten.
The other interesting thing is the treatment of the protagonist in this very (psychologically-speaking) twisted Giallo - in part due to the casting. Some may be able to get past the fact that this is Argento's daughter in the lead (originally, to give the benefit of the doubt, Bridget Fonda was cast and then backed out), and he puts her through some grueling things; aside from the obvious (scenes of rape and nudity and some brutal violence), there's the plunging deep into the scarring of a woman who already has a truly surreal disease not unlike an obscure comic-book hero. These are some of the freakiest scenes I've ever seen in any movie, if one can apply 'freaky' here which it should be: seeing her fall into these paintings, the faces of the sculptures, make it about the horror of the abstract intruding in on life, and these are quite creative. The other thing is how far Asia Argento goes into her sickness after the halfway point, when we think things should be getting better following a horrific encounter and the aftermath.
It's a performance that Asia is game for, and she gives it her all, even when things turn into those ludicrous beats one can see from time to time in Dario's movies. One short scene I loved was when Anna is putting on her make-up, slowly, taking her time, putting on her blonde wig (a Hitchcock touch?) while the buzzer is going off frantically and the Ennio Morricone score- as usual a variation on a great theme- plays on. One of the things that ends up making it tolerable of what the father is putting his daughter through here is that it's such a ballsy movie in typical Giallo clothing, reevaluating true evil vs true psychosis. It's only exploitive in certain little things that stick out, such as the silly CGI shot of the pill going down the throat (unnecessary) or the bullet going through the head or with the slow-motion reflection of the killer on the sheen of the bullet. And there are story things that seem a little too simple to bare on first thought, like how quickly Anna bags a guy whom she genuinely is attracted to and doesn't tell him a thing until a certain day when... well, you'll get the idea.
Sure, we've seen the detective-plot stuff, and sure the acting isn't all around very good all of the time save for its two main leads. But when its director gets going with something, it's still invigorating and cringe-worthy a lot of the time. My face when watching this film was a series of slack-jawed pauses and upturned eyebrows. It's gory and flamboyantly directed and it's a hell of a mind-f***, but it works, ultimately, and even underrated.
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