Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 12 
24 June
2002

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Dario Argento's La sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996) HORROR
Female subjectivity and the politics of "becoming other"
Dario Argento's La sindrome di Stendhal
(The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996)

As Colette Balmain argues, in La sindrome di Stendhal Argento shifts from his earlier critique of "masculine epistemology" to a more direct engagement with the politics of female identity.


Great works of art have great power
On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall.
— Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817)

In 1987, 107 cases of the Stendhal Syndrome—a condition in which the viewer of great works of art is overcome by temporary psychosis—had been documented by Professor Graziella Magherini, on whose book, La Sindrome di Stendhal, Dario Argento's 1996 film is loosely based. La sindrome di Stendhal is closer in visual imagery and thematic concerns to the rape-revenge film[1] than to the giallo, and as such provides an uncomfortable viewing experience for the unsuspecting spectator expecting the familiar pleasures offered by the structures of the latter. There is no hidden gothic secret of incestuous desires or pre-diegetic violence to uncover, and as the violent attacker/rapist is revealed after the opening sequences, no need for the conventional unmasking of the concealed killer at the conclusion of the narrative.

La sindrome di Stendhal functions both as a complex painterly composition, showing Argento's usual flair for the visual as well as aural aspects of the cinematic image, and as a commentary on the use of violence (of which Argento himself is complicitous) in traditional forms of visual iconography, painting and the conventions of modern generic cinematic expression in horror and the giallo. It is no surprise therefore that La sindrome di Stendhal has had problems finding the critical and cultural acclaim of his earlier and less contentious gialli.

Masculinity in crisis

By the time Argento wrote and directed Tenebrae (aka Unsane) in 1982, the angst-ridden and alienated male detective had become a cliché; the transformation of Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) from writer and reader of murder mysteries to the central character of Tenebrae's embedded narrative is representative perhaps of the exhaustion of the genre's masculine emphasis. With its multiple allusions to Sherlock Holmes and its intertextual misreading of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four, its interlocking frames and its multiple murderers, Tenebrae deconstructs the cause-effect mechanism linking the "reading" of the crime to the "reader" utilising rational systems of knowing the world as embodied within a masculine epistemology.

Although gialli often cross over between classical and "hard" noir forms of detection, as predominantly crime-detection films most of them rely upon the causal logic momentum of what Deleuze calls the "action-image," in which the task of the detective is to uncover a series of clues (some of which are misleading) and eventually resolve the disruption in the narrative through a revelation of the killer's identity.

Dario Argento's Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)The figures of Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) in Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Franco Arno (Karl Malden) and Carlo Giodani (James Franciscus) in Il Gatto a nove code (Cat O'Nine Tails, 1971) all fall within this classification, as each film is focalised through a central male detective whose epistemological quest—often understood as the solving of a puzzle rather than as a moral or ethical investigation—motivates the narrative trajectory.

In Tenebrae, however, although Peter Neal is originally situated in the role of detective, the irony is not lost that he is in fact a writer of detective fiction. As soon as the original killer is murdered, Neal loses his privileged/eccentric position outside the story of the crime, becoming instead that which he was seeking— a killer. In addition, Tenebrae's flashback sequences (although not necessarily of his childhood) serve to undermine Neal's masculinity, the red shoe signifying his "becoming other" and undermining the masculine epistemology central to the giallo.

As investigator collapses into investigated, innocence (if indeed any such thing exists in the giallo) into guilt, the genre's cause-effect logic is subverted for more fragmented and pluralistic—and perhaps more feminine/feminist—pleasures. Neal's penetrated body with which Tenebrae ends signifies perhaps the limits of the genre and its over-codification by the early 1980s.

Dario Argento's Phenonema (1985)In his next giallo, Phenonema (aka Creepers, 1985), Argento consciously moves away from the sphere of masculine epistemology. The symbolism of Professor MacGregor (Donald Pleasence)'s murder, and young Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly)'s subsequent positioning at the centre of the narrative's investigative drive, marks what can be seen as a turning point in Argento's oeuvre. His next three films—the so-called "Diva" trilogy of Opera (aka Terror at the Opera, 1987), Trauma (1994) and La sindrome di Stendhal—show an increasing engagement with the dialectics of feminine subjugation and subjectivisation with their careful and considered characterisations of female identity in patriarchal society.

A political rather than popular cinema

In La sindrome di Stendhal, Argento utilises the analogy between painting and cinema to provide his most extensive, and at times difficult, mediation on the nature of violence and the possibility of its transference. This transference is embodied within the doubling of Anna Manni (Asia Argento), a young police officer attached to the rape-squad in Rome, and Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), a violent rapist and murderer of a number of women in Rome and Florence. The narrative details Anna's multiple becomings and her struggle for self-determination as she undergoes a complex transformation triggered by three explicitly detailed rapes/attacks on her at the hands of Alfredo. These rapes/attacks take her from violated virgin to femme fatale, from victim to victimiser and from abused to abuser.

In La sindrome di Stendhal, rape is an issue of power rather than sex, clearly indicated at the visual level through the repeated imposition of Alfredo's reflection over and above Anna's— first seen in the clear glass of a taxi window and later in the mirrored spaces of Rembrandt's The Nightwatch in Anna's hotel bedroom. However, Anna's multiple and molecular becomings (as opposed to those of the molar subject) cannot be seen in terms of a simplistic mimicking or imitation of the masculine, sadistic self as represented through the figuration of Alfredo— the bourgeois intellectual who defines his own subjectivity through the subjugation of women.

Anna's symbolic self-castration, as she cuts her hair following the first attack, and her subsequent adoption of masculine characteristics after Alfredo's bloody death at her hands—best seen in the disturbing sequence when she attempts to rape Marco (Marco Leonardi), her work colleague and former boyfriend—defamiliarise the conventional signs of both masculinity and femininity. Such actions constitute Anna as "a block of becoming"[2], a site of pure intensity which deterritorialises—deconstructs without reconstructing—traditional iconographic representations of woman as mother and/or virgin and their opposites, the temptress and/or murderess. Such traditional representations can be found within the images that bring on Anna's attack of the Stendhal Syndrome in the film's opening sequences: Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, Botticelli's Primavera and Carvaggio's Medusa.

Dario Argento's La sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996)The use of paintings to mirror the thematic concerns of the narrative provides Argento a mechanism to explore the politics of the female struggle for subjectivity outside and inside the cinematic frame. Like cinema, painting is inscribed as a repressive medium, one whose ideological framework allows no space for the female gaze and therefore no possibility of self-determination outside of male desire. The stunning opening sequences of the film, in which Anna moves from in front to inside the frame of Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, suggests the suffocating entrapment of the female subject within the conventions of the painterly (and by extension, cinematic) frame.

This intersection between the painterly and the cinematic is explored in greater detail in the scenes where Anna tries to overcome her trauma by externalising her anger onto the blank canvas, at the behest of her psychologist, Dr Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli). With only the tools of her oppressors through which to redefine herself (the ideology and iconography of patriarchy contained within its linguistic and symbolic structures), Anna's attempt at catharsis is futile and she soon abandons the frame, turning instead to her own body as canvas.

Furthermore, the film's disengagement with the traditional form of the gialli and the hyper-masculinity of its epistemological spaces (including the repetitive structure of logic and detection) is apparent in the destruction of narrative coherence. At one point, Rembrandt's The Nightwatch becomes a door inscribing rhizomatic links between Florence (the present) and Rome (the past), through which Anna passes from one time to another and from one space to the next. This signals both a spatial and temporal disjunction, which is central to the breakdown of epistemological systems of knowledge, as past and present inhabit the same painterly, hallucinatory and cinematic frame.

Thus, La sindrome di Stendhal is political rather than popular cinema, and the reactions towards the film—the most vitriolic of which was Harvey Fenton's labeling of it "an abomination" in the UK magazine Flesh & Blood—indicate the difficulty of bringing together politics and art (ie cinema as an aesthetics and poetics) in our commodity-led marketplace.

Becoming-other

Dario Argento's La sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996)Asia Argento's performance of Anna's gradual descent into madness is embued with both power and restraint. This is apparent even in the dubbed English version of the film, as Anna's emotions are transcribed into visual signifiers through the lines and poses of her traumatised body. In her final transformation, as iconic femme fatale (complete with blonde wig, red lipstick and high heels), Anna takes her violent revenge on the world of patriarchy: a world which insists on viewing her within the limitations of image and desire and which ultimately fails her. Once again turning her body into a canvas, Anna this time reconstructs herself as ultimate object of male desire: a masquerade (like Anna's glasses) which men are unable to see past, and for which her psychologist pays the ultimate price: violent dismemberment at Anna's hands near the end of the film.

The possibility of redemption and/or liberation in her relationship with Marie (Julien Lambroschini), a young French art-restorer, is negated when Marie is eventually killed as part of Anna's continued movement towards total annihilation of self, utter self-destruction. Dressed predominantly in white, marked by blood (representing her violation), Argento uses the signifiers of pietistic art to emphasise Anna's suffering. In the most disturbing sequence of the film, the final and extended violation of Anna, she is restrained on the floor of a cave with her arms and feet positioned to mimic that of Christ on the Cross. And the conclusion alludes visually to paintings of Christ's entombment as Anna's limp and broken body is held up towards the camera's objectifying view.

It is all too easy to dismiss La sindrome di Stendhal as an aberration, an anomaly, in an otherwise fairly cohesive body of work. But this implies a failure to contextualise the film within Argento's increasing exploration of feminine subjectivity as inaugurated by the figuration of the female in Phenomena. Argento's much feted return to the traditions of the gialli in his latest film, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2001), may have the consequence of marginalising the more interesting concerns of his Diva trilogy.

In La sindrome di Stendhal, the traditions of painting are used to critique the violence of Western culture's objectification of the female body and self. And the multiple "becomings" of Anna, which take her from violated to violator, rework the cycle of abuse as explored in Trauma through the anorexic body of Aura Petrescu (also played by Asia Argento), thereby engaging with a much neglected area in the horror genre: the consequences of male violence on female subjectivity. Anna's becomings provide a "block" through which Argento can reconfigure traditional iconographies of gender representation in the horror film. He is thus able to provide a detailed and disturbing commentary on the consequences of violence on the female subject.

Colette Balmain

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Also of interest
About the author

Colette Balmain is a Lecturer in Film at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University. She is completing her PhD on the gialli films of Dario Argento. Besides European film, her research interests are in digital technologies and reconfigurations of the body (including computer games), and the politics of popular culture.


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Footnotes

1. Both Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine: Film, feminism, psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993, 128-38) and Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: British Film Institute, 1993, 137-65) suggest that the female protagonist of the rape-revenge film is the double of the stalker film's "final girl" in that both representations collapse distinctions between victim and violator, sadism and masochism, and both condense male castration fears onto the female other (whether she is figured as castrated or "castrator"). However, the slasher film's figuration of the final girl as androgynous—consider, eg Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)—diverges significantly from the more feminine body of the female protagonist in the rape-revenge film. In addition, whilst there are often symbolic males to provide lawful intervention and/or protection in the slasher genre, most of the men depicted in the rape-revenge film are inscribed as violent at worst and ineffectual at best. The rape-revenge cycle is synonymous with 1970s feminism and although Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave (1977) is perhaps the most infamous example (a film which has been banned in the UK until this year), Clover situates its "origins" in Wes Craven's low-budget Last House on the Left (1972) and its mainstreaming in Lamont Johnson's Lipstick (1976). There seems to me to be a series of obvious and overt intertextual references between the figuration of Anna in La sindrome di Stendhal and Jennifer (Camille Keaton) in I Spit on Your Grave, not least of which is the predominantly white clothes, stained with blood, that both victims/violators wear throughout the narratives, and the use of piestic imaginary to enhance the audience's sympathy with the characters.return to text

2. The division and distinction between the molar and the molecular allows for a radical rethinking of identity politics outside of fixed binarisms. For Deleuze (and Guattari), "becoming" is only possible within the figuration of becoming woman. As Jerry Flieger argues, "Deleuze's emphasis on becoming does not privilege Man; it critiques Man as the 'molar' paradigm of identity and subjectivity, opposed to 'molecular' immanence... [T]he molecular register considers non-subjective being on a level of chemical and physical reactions, intensities, in a radically material 'micropolitics'" ("Becoming Woman: Deleuze, Schreber and Molecular Identification," in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. Ian Buchanan and Claire Colebrook [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000], 41). See also Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's Plateau 1730, "Becoming-Intense, Becoming Animal," in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: The Athlone Press, 1993), 233-309.return to text

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