What separates us from sinister things, people, or ideas, and how do we know when malevolence lurks nearby? When a protagonist transforms into something grotesque and becomes an object of horror themselves, they cross a threshold and let evil inside. Boundaries of survival spaces are defined and eventually violated in dystopian, zombie, and supernatural horror subgenre films. The concept of liminality combined with foreboding dread and inevitability is hard-wired in the horror genre. Our Outside Your Window series explores themes of boundaries and thresholds in horror films.
Join Laura Stewart in her analysis of The Stendhal Syndrome, the story of revenge after rape and the overwhelming power of art, both of which lead a young female detective down the path to insanity.
Dario Argento is one of the greatest horror directors of all time. Every movie he has made is beautifully shot, as well as graphically, and often surreally violent. The Stendhal Syndrome is no different, but here in 1996, Argento was the first Italian director to use CGI (computer-generated imagery). While those effects have not really stood the test of time, they only add to the surreality of what we are seeing. And as the CGI is applied to works of art to bring them to life, they don’t need to look realistic. Think of Twin Peaks S3; David Lynch’s artistic effects are bizarre and amateur in parts, but they only add to the absurdity and distress.
The story begins with Anna. In fact, the whole story is about Anna; there is barely a scene without her, which is an absolute treat for us. Anna is played by Asia Argento, Dario’s daughter. Just knowing that he directed some truly traumatic scenes with his girl aged only nineteen is a little disturbing, yes, but also impressive on both their parts that they did not hold back.
Anna Manni is a young detective working in Rome. She is on the hunt for a serial rapist and murderer whom she tracks to Florence, where she receives a tip-off that he is going to be visiting the Uffizi Museum. Using a composite sketch drawn up from a description given by one of his victims, she searches for him. Anna seems like Alice in Wonderland as curiosity takes her down the rabbit hole looking for the villain, her neck appearing to extend so she can see above the crowds. While perusing the museum, she suddenly becomes overwhelmed by the artwork, the paintings and sculptures on display. Unlike Alice, Anna does not need to take a potion to create these delusions and hallucinations. The pictures speak to her—voices and screams cry out from the horror depicted on the canvas (if you listen with headphones the sound truly consumes you, it’s quite hypnotising). The colours of the paints soar with luminosity, absorbing Anna into the picture, creating such a hysteria within her that she passes out, knocking her face on the way, which splits her lip open.
Her mind travels deep into a hallucinogenic ocean, through turquoise waters, where she finally gains control of herself again and comes face to face with a large fish. They kiss. She wakes up. The fall has given her mild concussion, and she doesn’t remember who she is or why she is there. A handsome, fair-haired man comes to her assistance, retrieving her handbag that she left behind. There’s quite a high chance that the concussion was written in purely so that Anna has a reason not to immediately recognise that the man helping her is the man she is looking for. But that’s okay, as Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann) gives us a clue about what is happening to Anna, telling her she experienced Stendhal syndrome, a reaction to works of art that makes the viewer suffer hallucinations, disorientation and even unconsciousness. His knowledge of this rare phenomenon makes you wonder if this was something he suffered from also, perhaps a curse he wanted to rid himself of? Either that, or he had done some serious homework on our girl, as we see much later on in a flashback that Anna had experienced the same phenomena at her local museum back home when she was a little girl.
Upon her return to the hotel she is staying at, the painting in her room begins to call to her. She travels through it, out into the cobbled streets of old Florence where she comes across her colleagues, the police, surrounding the body of a woman, recently raped and murdered, dumped in the middle of the street. It’s got all the hallmarks of the man Anna is tracking.
Still confused and disorientated, Anna goes back to her hotel room, accompanied by her cop boyfriend, Marco (Marco Leonardi), but she does not want him to stay with her. It feels like even if she was fully aware of who she was, her interest in Marco might have been fading. She tries to pull herself together in her room when the blonde-haired man enters. Alfredo forces her to onto the bed and brutally rapes her. He beats her face and cuts her lip with a razor blade he has been storing inside his mouth, just as she had cut it when she fell at the museum.
Anna blacks out. She wakes in the back of a car to the sound of screaming. Alfredo has captured another woman and he rapes her right in front of Anna. Argento’s signature style of surreal and graphic violence comes into play here as Alfredo shoots the woman and the camera follows the bullet into the victim’s head, through it, and out the other side. Anna makes her escape now and runs through the silent Italian streets. Alfredo laughs and points his gun towards her as if he was going to shoot her like a deer. That is what she is now, part of his game. He lets her go, enjoying toying with her.
Anna is changed now. Once a bright and smart detective, she is now traumatised by her rape and the fact that art everywhere is haunting her. The change in Anna’s personality and appearance over the film is what makes it so compelling to watch. It’s as if Dario Argento is telling us that the true horror in the world is what happens to women at the hands of men, day in and day out. Stendhal Syndrome is not about finding the killer-rapist. It is about the trauma women go through in the aftermath of such an ordeal. Anna has two devastating psychological traumas to deal with, and this film portrays how she copes—or doesn’t cope—with what has happened to her.
Anna lives and works in a ‘man’s world’. She’s the sole woman in her police team and her boss has a real soft spot for her because she is excellent at her job, despite her young age. Her male colleagues know she is brilliant, but, as the only woman, they treat her like a reluctant princess. The only women we ever see her talk to are a nurse and other victims of rape. No female friends, no mother that we know of. We meet her prude and repressed father and two idiot brothers who don’t seem to understand the enormity of what she went through at all. They continue to tease her in the way big brothers always do.
Anna is assigned a male psychiatrist, Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli), who she does not truly open up to. Yes, she tells him all about the effect that the art at the museum had on her, but not about the rape, at least not in detail. She is able to confirm that the man at the museum was the man who attacked her, Alfredo, and she knows full well that he let her live for a purpose. She is his plaything now. He is hunting her, but it’s time for her to turn the tables.
One of the most iconic scenes in The Stendhal Syndrome is when Anna cuts off her beautiful dark tresses with a pair of scissors, symbolising the loss of her feminine self and her transition to becoming a stronger person. Short hair is sometimes considered to be unfeminine, and the cutting of one’s hair is often seen as removing one’s femininity. In the Bible, the cutting of one’s hair represents shame, which seems particularly relevant here as rape victims often feel a considerable amount of shame as a result of their ordeal. Anna’s humiliation is amplified as it was her job as an officer of the law to prevent further rapes and murders from occurring.
Before the rape, we saw Anna with long dark hair, wearing a modest skirt and a white blouse—presumably to highlight the bright red blood dripping onto white fabric throughout the film. This is especially so in her first phase (her true self), where we see close-up shots of blood dripping onto her blouse several times. The repeated imagery of white fabric may represent innocence—the assault destroys who she is, it strips her of her identity. It taints who she is, contaminates and hardens her. We see Anna looking in the mirror repeatedly throughout the film, the use of reflection showing that Anna completely disassociates from the woman she once was.
Anna cuts her hair short and begins dressing in a more masculine style, in trouser suits and oversized shirts, and she loses the makeup. It’s a stand against her attacker whom she was powerless against in her more feminine guise, but it’s also a stand against the men around her. She doesn’t want to play the part of damsel in distress. She doesn’t want to require a man’s protection when it was a man that did this to her in the first place. Anna wants to defend herself, so she takes up boxing and beats her male counterparts when they spar. She delights in receiving a powerful new gun from her boss. All these changes present her as becoming more like her attacker. The hunted is becoming the hunter.
Marco visits Anna, bringing her a movie, pizza and chocolate. She refuses all of them, stating that she doesn’t like any of those things now. Marco pressures her for sex, far too soon after the assault. She responds by shouting, ‘You want to f*ck? How about I f*ck you?’, then slams him face-first against a wall, yanks down his trousers and gropes him forcefully. It’s not a pleasant scene. Anna’s new self has not only taken on physical masculine traits but also typically male behaviours by becoming the sexual aggressor. Anna fights off the unwanted sexual contact this time by becoming the dominant party.
Knowing that Alfredo will be coming for her, she takes the advice of Dr. Cavanna and goes to stay with her father and brothers, with police guard outside at all times. She is relieved to know that the local museum is closed for renovation, as on top of everything else, she is still suffering from the Stendhal syndrome.
In the same way that she moulds herself into someone more like her attacker, she also begins to embrace art by painting canvasses. All of her creations look similar: a face with eyes red, a wide mouth silently screaming, pitch-black like a tunnel to hell—most likely, self-portraits of Anna expressing her inner turmoil. However, despite Anna’s attempts to become stronger and get a hold of her affliction, it still appears to control her. She steps inside a massive painting of a waterfall and becomes drenched in water as if it’s the fiercest way of cleaning Alfredo off her skin. Yet, she is still vulnerable, and we see her completely covered in paint, crying and holding herself in the fetal position.
Despite her efforts to protect herself in a way that she felt she couldn’t before, Anna falls victim once again to Alfredo, who tracks her down, murders her police guard, then knocks her out. This time, it is even worse. He takes her to a disused tunnel where drug users once shot up and got high. There, Alfredo restrains her to a mattress on the floor. Grafitti art covers the walls. It is wet and murky, and this monster repeatedly rapes Anna throughout the night. He leaves in the morning to go and play at his normal life but makes it clear he will be back over and over again. He leaves Anna tied up and alone with only the images on the wall for company. She is scared almost to death of the graffiti creature coming for her and passes out. This will be the last time that the Stendhal syndrome presents to her, however.
Alfredo returns later for round two. But by now Anna has freed herself and is laying in wait for him. She stabs him in the neck with two mattress springs, takes her gun back from him and shoots him in the gut, pokes him in the eye and beats him to a pulp, taunting him the way he taunted her, before kicking him off an embankment into a river below, where he is swept out of sight.
At this point, the jaded filmgoer will groan knowingly, anticipating Alfredo’s inevitable return just when all the characters think he’s dead. Anna does not believe he is dead and starts feeling like she’s being watched, so it seems that’s where we’re going. But Argento is not one to recycle old clichés. The ending of the film is the logical, inevitable result of what has come before.
The third phase of Anna Manni is heralded in by her killing Alfredo Grossi. After Alfredo’s death, we see Anna looking into a mirror once again, this time fitting a long blonde wig over her short dark hair. Two things stand out here regarding Anna’s change in hairstyle. Firstly, long blonde hair is seen as an ultimate sign of femininity; secondly, Alfredo also had blonde hair.
Up to this point, the film almost suggests that femininity is bad and represents weakness and that masculinity is good, representing strength and power. However, the ending of the second phase of Anna’s metamorphosis shows that neither are true. Anna is a victim in both. Therefore, Anna has to adopt a third persona to survive and forge a new identity to carry on with her life.
The baggy shirts, masculine suits and sportswear of Anna’s male phase have been replaced with strappy high heels, flared skirts, pretty blouses and accessories like cinched belts and glamorous retro handbags, adopting a persona that is completely at odds with her masculine phase. She has become Venus in Boticelli’s painting displayed at the Uffizi; she is an idealised, romanticised image of femininity. There are clear parallels between Alfredo and Anna; Alfredo appeared Adonis-like and Anna has become Venus—both characters represent ideal, almost God-like images of their genders. And just like the mythological characters they are based on, Alfredo and Anna’s beauty masks their deep-rooted character faults and dark natures.
As this new version of herself, Anna gains confidence and appears calm most of the time. She even meets a new love interest, Marie, a French art student. He, alongside Marco, place Anna on a pedestal, viewing her as a curiosity. They are enchanted by her beauty and blind to her rapidly deteriorating mental state.
Anna’s long blonde wig symbolises that she is putting on the identity of Alfredo; it is not a true reflection of who she really is. It is not an organic part of her like real hair. Anna wants to wield power like the power Alfredo had over her by assuming a character that she and we associate with feminine strength and power. In this case, a seductive, sexual power which is evident in her passionate relationship with Marie. It is telling that Anna feels ready for intimacy and sexually pursues a man with a traditionally female name. This suggests that Anna is the one in the traditionally male role within the relationship despite appearing feminine, which makes Anna become the femme fatale archetype.
During Anna’s femme-fatale phase, she seems to revel in the passion and culture of Italy as we see in her love of art at the sculpture gallery, to riding around the streets of Rome with Marie yelling out artists names to the backdrop of the eternal city. The Stendhal syndrome has gone now that she has become more like Alfredo. Now she seeks out art. Much like Alfredo led her to the museum, she will entrap Marie in the same way.
As Anna’s power increases, her murderous desires increase, too. Despite appearing to be very fond of Marie, she visits him at his art studio, and he experiences Stendhal syndrome himself, before being shot dead. In the final scene, Anna’s world is beginning to fall apart. The police and her boss Manetti know she is the killer and they hunt for her as she appears to unravel completely. After killing Marco, Anna pulls off her wig, revealing her real short dark hair. She’s wiped her makeup off, and she is starting to resemble her former self. Yet Anna still wears her dainty look of a white fitted flared skirt, blouse and strappy sandals. The different personas of Anna have merged and are fragmented, just like her mind.
As she wanders the streets mid-breakdown, repeating the monotonous chores she has to do, trying to pull herself back to a normal life where she didn’t kill three people—her boyfriend, her ex and her psychiatrist—she is chased down by the police. In the disturbing final moments of the film, Anna is ‘rescued’ by her male co-workers, yet the entire scene is filmed like the previous rape scenes. Anna wails and claws at her face as several arms outstretch, grabbing her face and body supposedly in order to comfort her. As Anna loses the strength to fight them off, she is scooped up and processionally carried through the streets. This scene feels almost more disturbing than the rape scenes that came earlier; the imagery is like that of a gang-bang. Supposedly, Anna has been saved, but it feels like another ‘rape’ that signifies another change to come for Anna. As the credits roll, we wonder what will become of Anna—I get the sense that she will never get better and will fall further into suffering from which she will never recover.
Anna feels very much like a victim—something she desperately tried not to become. However, I don’t think Argento wanted Anna to be a ‘weak’ character. Instead, he used the film and her changing personality to give a multifaceted view of the trauma of sexual violence. Anna is broken, but she also brandished a lot of power. She is a killer, yet she is a victim.
In The Stendhal Syndrome, Argento moves away from the paint by numbers approach to mental illness and trauma and instead gives us a detailed, complex view of how it can make someone who was once a good person become evil. While it’s not your typical horror movie, with jump scares and the protagonist becoming a supernatural being or monster, The Stendhal Syndrome is far more chilling and disturbing for it could happen to any of us in real life. That is true horror.