The Stendhal syndrome

A young woman in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence is so overwhelmed by the beauty of the renaissance art on view that she faints.  In her swoon, she dreams she is swimming in clear water, where a giant, pre-historic-looking fish with a human face kisses her.  Later in the film she tries to describe the experience to a severe and bespectacled psychiatrist.

…and I entered the painting; it was as if I was suddenly immersed in it … I know it sounds crazy.

The psychiatrist looks arch:

Let’s try never to use words like ‘crazy’

and reaching for a book on his desk, he begins to read from it:

In 1817 the French writer, Stendhal was in Florence.  He was admiring the works of art in the church of Santa Croce; he was overcome by powerful emotions.  It had certainly happened to others before him, but he was the first to write about the phenomenon in his diary.  

He looks at Anna over his glasses:

That’s why what happened to you in the Uffizi is known as Stendhal Syndrome – ‘My feeling so profound that it borders on pity.  All this speaks clearly to my soul. Oh if only I could forget it…’

Stendhal Syndrome explained then – the neurotic (and romantic) condition that is.  Less easy to process is The Stendhal Syndrome, Dario Argento’s 1996 film, in which this action takes place.  After fainting and before procuring psychiatric help, Anna, a policewoman in Rome, is raped by the serial killer and rapist she is pursuing, who also turns out to be the self-same bystander who came to her aid in the gallery.  During this attack, she faints again and revives just in time to watch her assailant shooting another woman through the face. Humorously he eyes Anna through the exit wound. She escapes, she seeks counselling, she returns to her home town – but her personality has changed utterly.  Even the psychiatrist, with his encyclopaedic array of handily placed reading-material, cannot stop her from painting, over and over again, a square headed monster with red eyes and a wide screaming black mouth.  The psychiatrist doesn’t seem to be particularly worried by this. The killer returns, and worse, takes Anna captive in an underground cave whose rubbish graffiti elicits the same effect as Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi.  She fights back.  There is shooting, and stabbing.  Eyes are gouged out.  She dumps his body in a river – but is he really dead?

What?  In all this, it is not clear what part Stendhal Syndrome really plays in events.  Both victim and pursuer, we understand, suffer from it.  The serial killer/rapist, however, does not faint, and it’s hard to see how Anna’s preternatural susceptibility to beauty is in any way instrumental in her being continually attacked. Why is the psychiatrist so suave about his patently mental client?  Who was the big fish?  And why is it all so irredeemably awful?  The Stendhal Syndrome is so wooden and unmoored by any semblance of filmic capability that until a reference to HIV about half an hour through (providing evidence of contemporaneity), I had presumed the film was made in a Roman equivalent of the Hammer Horror studios some time in the 1960s.  Most of the actors speak English but in the cut I saw they’ve also been post-dubbed, which gives everything a hammy awkwardness that sits oddly with the ultra-violence.  It’s like watching a cross between Psycho and Vertigo reworked as a video nasty performed by the amateur dramatic group your parents belong to.  Which reminds me, did I mention that, for reasons beyond my control I actually watched the first half of this with my father?  And, bizzarely, it turns out that for the part of Anna – abused, knocked about and demented – Argento chose to cast his own daughter.  A review of The Stendhal Syndrome by The Dark Side describes it as ‘the film that proves beyond any reasonable argument that Dario Argento has finally lost it’, yet even this cannot convey the frankly uncanny lack of charm it possesses.  Oh if only I could forget it…