Following in the footsteps of his previous film, Trauma, Dario Argento swaps mining his daughter’s eating disorder for giallo set dressing to explore his own experiences with 1996 film The Stendhal Syndrome, a movie that taxes the titular ailment beyond all rational limits. As a child, Argento himself had a brief dalliance with the syndrome, defined as a powerful fugue state brought about by the presence of art, so in the film, he finds a way to milk the phenomenon for all its worth.

Daughter Asia Argento returns as the lead, Anna, a police detective sent to Florence to hunt down a rapist and murderer named Alfredo (played by a young Thomas Kretschmann). But rather than allowing his film to descend into a game of cat and mouse between investigator and killer, Argento stages an early sequence where Anna is overcome by a gorgeous painting. When Alfredo finds that the woman sent to capture him is so overwhelmed as to not know her own identity, he exploits her wounded state of mind.

For Argento, finding a way to seamlessly transition from art-influenced dementia to an opportunity to lens some grotesque rape is pretty standard stuff, so of course Alfredo has his way with Anna and takes advantage of her condition to evade capture. That’s par for the course at this point. But by sidestepping the usually bland whodunit nature of the giallo genre, he’s able to further probe this premise into some fascinating, but no less distressing, directions.

During Anna’s continued hunt for the killer, she falls for Marie (Julien Lambroschini), an art student, while she’s seeing a psychologist as the result of her trauma. When Marie turns up dead and Alfredo returns to haunt Anna some more, she obfuscates elements of the investigation, prioritizing revenge over justice, all the while exhibiting troubling behavior, like violently forcing herself on a fellow officer. When Argento allows Anna her vengeance and she kills Alfredo herself, it feels like the film’s climax has arrived too early.

But the rest of the film, where Anna’s identity begins to fracture as she struggles with the rubble of her life, has a different tenor. The use of perspective in the camera angles, the psychosexual identity crisis, all reek of a Hitchcockian/De Palma approach that feels more intriguing than the film’s first half. The film’s final twist, that killing Alfredo was a measure too late, is its most poignant.

More than any exploration of trauma Argento has used as an excuse to re-stage the same horror movie plunder, his attempts to unpack Anna’s rape actually rings with some measure of truth. The easy way out would be for Anna, destroyed by this heinous violation, to get vindication in murdering her attacker. Instead, it’s an altogether hollow act. Alfredo’s irreversible actions have already decimated her psyche, turning her into a pale echo of her rapist’s own malice, a never-ending shadow of the worst thing to ever happen to her. That she could become the villain in her own nascent love story due to the horrors she’s experienced, against all odds, makes The Stendhal Syndrome an interesting outlier in this period of Argento’s work.

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Followed

A horror film that doesn’t go nearly far enough. …