Saturday, December 03, 2005

Day 64: The Stendhal Syndrome

A mid-level effort by Dario Argento, it has the ignoble distinction of featuring rape scenes involving the director's daughter, Asia Argento.  This fact is only mildly distracting, though, since the film renders her point of view so well.  The title of the film refers to a (fictional?) mental condition in which a person is disoriented and overcome by works of art, causing them to hallucinate and even pass out.  It's an interesting conceit, used in a similar fashion to the way Vertigo hobbled Jimmy Stewart's character with its titular mental affliction, and yields some wonderful sequences in which Asia Argento is inundated with hallucinatory sounds and images emanating from works of art.

I've liked Argento's films in the past for their beauty.  The image from Suspira of a young woman impaled by shards of a shattered stained glass window is as artful as bloodletting in film gets.  In addition, I've admired the way his films capture a tone that feels like they're told from the emotional perspective of their killers; there's a certain amount of shameful joy in Argento's gore, a way of depicting death as if it is both exciting and excruciatingly painful or disgusting at once.

This film, while it's exceedingly graphic at times and retains the creepy perspective described above, loses much of the beauty of Argento's earlier efforts.  There are a few moments when the imagery pops out, like when the sculptures in an art museum seem threatening due to the way the camera captures them or a scene in which Asia, trying to hide the truth from a friend of hers, is lit in a way that her eyes seem to peek out from absolute darkness, but for the most part the film feels bland compared to the director's previous work.  This isn't a problem in and of itself, but something that struck me as I watched it.  Adding to the visual muddiness are some early CG effects that, while they're used sparingly, tend to be distracting.

Still, Argento manages to wring some fine, creepy moments out of a plot that, in other hands, would have been uninteresting.  Asia Argento plays a cop on the trail of a serial rapist.  When her titular mental condition puts her in a vulnerable state, she's kidnapped and raped by the man she's tracking.  She manages to exact a brutal revenge on the man, but soon finds that her experiences have affected her mental state more than she realized.

The movie concludes brilliantly; a group of fellow cops attempts to help and comfort Asia --at this point she's a danger to herself and others-- and instead of accepting their offer, she screams for her life.  The movie cuts to shots of these helpful men who surround her and they appear to be leering and aggressive.  This scene effectively encapsulates everything that has come before it, rendering Asia's point of view to the point that we're on her side, despite the fact that she's killed a couple of innocents.  I also liked the way Argento's usual excess in gore led to a satisfying, realistic confrontation between Asia and the rapist.  Also, Ennio Morricone proves, yet again, that he can write music just as delightfully overbearing and creepy as Goblin.

All this is good, but the movie's just too long, its pace is too dull, and its plotting too standard in order to be too excited about it.  The second half of the movie, which contains some interesting exploration of Asia's character, is taken up by unnecessary and overly complicated mystery elements, elements that don't withstand scrutiny even after we learn there's an unreliable narrator in the room.  Certain characters slow the threadbare plot every time they're on screen.  And some plot devices are introduced, only to be dropped later.  All of these problems are present in other Argento movies and, often, they somehow add to the dreamlike mood.  This time, they're distracting.

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