“The Stendhal Syndrome”: Dario Argento’s brutal rape-revenge giallo starred his daughter Asia

By on January 25, 2019

Italian horror film maestro Dario Argento‘s intensely brutal rape-revenge giallo La Sindrome Di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996) — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — stars the director’s beautiful daughter Asia in a slightly-NSFW mind-warping psychological saga about a female detective who begins to hallucinate after viewing the artwork on display in Florence, Italy.

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The Stendhal Syndrome — which Argento later claimed was “the most brutal film” he’d ever directed — stars Asia Argento, once named “Sexiest Woman in the World” by Maxim magazine, as “Anna Manni.”

Acting on an anonymous tip-off that the elusive serial murderer/rapist she is pursuing will be there, she visits the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

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There, she soon becomes so transfixed by the richly-symbolic works of art, particularly Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Fall of Icarus,” that she falls into a hallucinatory trance, plunging into the painting’s oceanic depths (where she kisses a grouper flush on the mouth!)

A handsome stranger “Alfredo Grossi” (Thomas Kretschmann) returns the purse she’d dropped inside and lends Detective Manni the money for a taxi back to her hotel, where she continues being troubled by the art on the wall of her hotel room walls.

She has the physical sensation of stepping into Rembrandt’s painting of 17th Century policemen, “The Night Watch.”

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She also has a disturbing dream in which she suddenly finds herself in a piazza in Rome, where she talks with her colleagues about the serial rapist/murderer.

She awakens to find that Alfredo, the strange blonde-haired man from the gallery, is in now her room, revealing himself as the sadistic killer she’s been assigned to investigate.

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Alfredo holds her against her will and rapes her, using her disorder, the Stendhal Syndrome, against her.

She later turns the tables on her abductor after she begins to understand and unlock another personality within her.

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Even while filming The Stendhal Syndrome during July of 1995 — this was the only movie to ever be filmed inside the Uffizi Gallery, by the way, and also the first Italian film to use computer-generated imagery — Argento had to deal with intense and extreme emotional reactions.

“It was an amazing experience,” Argento once recalled. “Usually there are thousands of people lining up for hours waiting to see these works, and here I was for days on end with these masterpieces at my fingertips. I would walk around the corridors at night, looking at Da Vincis and Rembrants in deserted rooms, in the dark, with this incredibly exhilarating but scary feeling. I could feel the presence of the artists around me, so strong are their works. There were nights where I could swear they appeared in front of me. It was the most amazing experience.”

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Read more about The Stendhal Syndrome below.

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Argento had read Graziella Magherini’s 1989 book La sindrome di Stendhal about the very-real Stendhal Syndrome, a condition experienced by people who have a very strong reaction while looking at certain works of art from the Renaissance period.

The disorder causes them to experience nausea, dizziness, fainting spells, hallucinations and, at its worst, struggles with split personality and self-mutilation (Argento’s use of razor blades in the film is horrifyingly real).

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The psychosomatic condition was first diagnosed in Florence, Italy in 1982, and earned its name from 19th Century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (who used the pen-name Stendhal), author of the 1830 novel The Red and the Black.

Beyle had apparently been so overwhelmed physically and psychologically after visiting museums in Florence and viewing certain artworks on display, that he suffered from temporary amnesia as he wandered around Florence, troubled and confused, for several hours afterwards.

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Reading about the syndrome, Argento then remembered that, as a teenager visiting Athens, Greece, with his parents on holiday, he had fallen very ill in front of the Parthenon.

It was reading about the condition decades later which made him realize that he too had suffered from the Stendhal Syndrome, which he realized was a good foundation on which to build an interesting story to film as a bloody giallo.

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Argento — who wrote the script with Franco Ferrini — had originally planned on filming The Stendhal Syndrome in Arizona with American actress Bridget Fonda in the lead (we’ve also read that he considered casting Jenifer Jason Leigh and Daryl Hannah as Detective Manni).

He later decided to cast his daughter Asia in the controversial role, a move heavily criticized upon the film’s theatrical release, particularly because of the depth of the character’s sexual psychosis.

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In probably the most Hitchockian film of his career, Argento uses the famous works of art on display — Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” Caravaggio’s “Medusa” and other paintings — to highlight certain themes and ideas throughout, including female castration.

The film also features a hauntingly hypnotic score by the great Ennio Morricone, and gorgeously elegant cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, who’d shot eight films for Federico Fellini (this was his last fiction feature film before he retired).

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This version of The Stendhal Syndrome — released on DVD by Blue Underground — is presented in stunning high definition using the original Italian 35mm inter-positive overseen by Giuseppe Rotunno.

Watch The Stendhal Syndrome and other Dario Argento films in our Blue Underground collection on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.