In “The Stendhal Syndrome,” frightmeister Dario Argento tempers his penchant for Grand Guignolesque bloodletting and supernatural excess, returning to a style closer to that of his early thrillers. The film kicks off with an exhilarating opening act but gradually ebbs into the domain of more commonplace psychological serial-killer chillers as the central conceit recedes. Argento-philes should subscribe nonetheless, and presales to several major territories indicate at least a modest offshore profile.
Corker of a curtain raiser has Anna Manni (director’s daughter Asia Argento) cruising the corridors of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and becoming disoriented by the disturbing beauty of the masterpieces on display. A cacophony of different languages heard from the tourists around her blends into noises coming from the paintings themselves. Transfixed before Brueghel’s “The Flight of Icarus,” she faints and plunges into the picture’s ocean depths. A handsome stranger, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), helps her to her feet.
Back in her hotel suffering from temporary memory loss, Anna is hypnotized by a painting on the wall. Warping into a doorway to the recent past, it enables her to piece together her identity as a police detective sent to the Uffizi by an anonymous tip to find a serial rapist and murderer. But he finds her first. Easily overpowering her, Alfredo rapes her brutally, then later makes her watch while he rapes and murders another woman in the bed beside her.
The heady, almost hallucinatory tone of the intro subsides following Anna’s escape and return to Rome. Her colleagues, including a lovelorn former flame (Marco Leonardi), organize round-the-clock protection while a shrink (Paolo Bonacelli) attempts to help her over the trauma, identifying her extreme reaction to the artwork as the “Stendhal syndrome.”
Alfredo’s killing spree soon leads back to Anna. He terrorizes and rapes her again, keeping her prisoner in an isolated junkie hangout covered with demonic graffiti. Eventually she turns the tables on her captor, but the killing continues.
The script’s most unwise move is to cure Anna far too early of the artsy affliction that provides the pic’s best visual gimmicks. The condition’s effect on her, and Alfredo’s ability to use this for his own devices, is the story’s prize element. Replacing this with less esoteric psychological ailments — including having Anna perform an identity switch with a bad Veronica Lake wig and then being impregnated by the spirit of her tormentor — Argento steers the pic on a less original, often clumsy course.
As with much of the director’s work, large sections of plot are pure hokum, and the gradual slackening of both pace and suspense in a sluggish second half only underlines the increasing silliness.
Argento is fine in her intense, terrified early scenes but progressively less convincing as career cop and empowered madwoman. While the monstrous killer with GQ looks is hardly new, German thesp Kretschmann brings the part a good share of fresh menace.
Giuseppe Rotunno’s classy lensing is cool and elegant, with the deep reds and blues in which Argento pics are usually drenched conspicuously absent. The director’s customary barrage of gory set pieces also is kept to a minimum, though a handful of vintage Argento moments will please his admirers. Visual effects generally are sharp, as is the elaborately constructed soundtrack. This is compromised by Argento’s practice of post-synching dialogue (in both Italian and English versions), but given immeasurable help by Ennio Morricone’s creepily insistent singsong score.