Dario Argento’s films are often described as ‘style over substance’. Upon reading yet another sentiment to this effect in my final year of film school, I decided that my major dissertation would form a defence of Dario, arguing that his films are subjective, richly layered, and polysemic pieces of art that require the audience to actively work with the material in order to generate meaning.
This series – Confessions of an English Argento Apologist – will return to the main discussion points of my dissertation and unpack Argento’s films, specifically his later critically reviled output, from this perspective. Fellow Dario-diehards will have no doubt picked up on the fact that the title of the series is an allusion to the source material for Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, Thomas De Quincey’s wonderful Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1800). This influence is itself indicative of the comprehensive literary background that informs Argento’s body of work and contributes to my overall argument that his films contain an abundance of substance, one that is in turn dripping with style.I deliberated over this title due to its potential negative connotations in regards to Argento’s filmography. However, as Argento’s credibility fell from ‘master of his craft’ to ‘shadow of his former glory’ amongst the horror community with each film released since La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996), which is critically considered to be the start of Argento’s directorial decline, I feel that the merits of his latter body of work must be defended. I hope that these articles, at least, inspire readers to consider the strengths of Argento’s later work instead of simply dismissing the films for their weaknesses.
For this first instalment of the series, where better to start than with the film that supposedly helmed Dario’s (artistic) demise: La Sindrome di Stendhal. Chris Gallant furthers the ‘style over substance’ argument in relation to Argento’s visual flair, asserting that, for many, ‘the aesthetic fussiness of many of the Argento films is little more than superficial flourish, artistic gloss…’ (2000: 65). As La Sindrome di Stendhal is thematically concerned with art, I will analyse the film’s aesthetic form and style via its shot composition, to explore the relationship between painting and the cinema within the film. I will look specifically at the excess of framing (mise-en-abîme), the stasis of the plan-tableau, a theatrical or cinematic shot that resembles a painting (Dudley, 1976: 173), and the subsequent theme of the assaultive and reactionary gaze (Clover, 1993).
A ‘mise-en-abîme of frames’ (Vacche, 1996: 195) refers to an excess of framing, or the ‘containment of an entity within another identical entity : image of an image’ (Merriam-Webster, 2004). The opening title sequence of the film provides an excellent example of how this shot construction bestows meaning in relation to the context of the film. Contrary to Argento’s usual black screen during his opening titles, La Sindrome di Stendhal presents a strip of various paintings on the right hand side of the screen. This strip alludes to film cells in the way that the images continuously ascend upwards out of the frame. A ‘mise-en-abîme’ of framing occurs through the stark division of the colourful images against the black background and titles. The images presented interestingly depict sections from paintings, and the subject of the majority of the artwork is concerned with acts of violence and suffering. An example is the use of the painting, The Death of Sardanapolous (1827) by Eugène Delacroix. Though the subject of the painting is the male prince, who has secured himself in a room full of his treasures whilst under siege, the portion of the painting framed in the opening credit sequence depicts one of his many wives being stabbed to death by a male attacker, itself an image within an image. This violent, sexual act, as the woman is naked, prepares the audience for the themes of male sexual power and violence within the film.
In La Sindrome di Stendhal, Anna Manni (Asia Argento) falls victim to an illness known as Stendhal Syndrome at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This psychosomatic condition renders the affected person emotionally overwhelmed and subject to hallucinations when confronted with works of art (Schjedahl, 1998: 57). Severely affected by the abundance of art, Anna falls and hits her head.
In her vulnerable and confused state, suffering temporary amnesia, Anna returns to her hotel room where she encounters and enters a painting psychosomatically, The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn (1642). The frame of the painting emphasises the mise-en-abîme of the shot construction, providing a division between the external, real (objective) world and the internal, psychological (subjective) world. This is suggested by the manifestation of Anna’s condition when she confronts the painting. Battle cries, drum beats and the sounds of death and destruction accompany the depiction of war within the painting. A series of close-ups, further segmenting and framing sections of the painting, reveal a mini-narrative as soldiers with muskets are contrasted with shots of policemen brandishing weapons. Anna passes through the painting, which has psychologically manifested as a doorway.
No narrative information has yet been revealed as to Anna’s identity and background, and it is through her psychosomatic connection with the painting that she, and the audience, discovers that she is a homicide Detective. Her reason for visiting the Uffizi Gallery was because she was investigating a lead in a serial rape and murder case. Unknowingly, through her condition, Anna made herself known to the murderer and he has followed her. As she crosses back through the frame of the painting into the real world, Anna observes her reflection in the glass covering the painting, of which the shot is completely composed, in addition to the reflection of the murderer, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), behind her. This shot composition is an en example of the plan-tableau and, as such, is a commentary on the assaultive versus reactionary gaze within the diegetic world of the film.
Pascal Bonitzer writes that the plan-tableau is interactive and symbolises ambivalence: it is ‘discourse in two voices, the unstable mixing of the high (painting) and the low (cinema), of movement (the shot) and of stasis (the painting)’ (Bonitzer, 1985: 30). This stasis and shot composition, as the pair gaze at each other while framed within the painting itself, renders the gaze itself as the subject of the shot. Adam Knee refers to the recurring theme of the investigatory narrative within Argento’s films, which emphasises the importance of the image and ‘processes of perception, of seeing and hearing, and of memory, as well as the ambiguity and fallibility of all of these’ (1996: 223). This statement refers to the psychological trauma experienced by Anna as a result of the assaultive and reactive gaze: while the assaultive gaze is associated with the killer in slasher / thriller films and is thus masculinised, the reactive gaze is assigned to the victim and coded as feminine (Clover, 1993: 205).
Within this plan-tableau of the painting, Anna’s gaze at Alfredo is reactionary while his is assaultive; he physically attacks her, pulling her backwards as the shot composition transforms from painting to reality. However, contrary to traditional theory regarding the gaze and gender, it was actually Anna’s active, investigatory gaze that led to Alfredo turning this gaze back on her. Anna’s reactive gaze in this plan-tableau is thus secondary; she becomes Alfredo’s victim due to her use of the assaultive gaze traditionally associated with the male aggressor.
Alfredo brutally rapes Anna and then begins a sadistic game, torturing her until he attacks her once again. Captured, Anna is able to break free and kill Alfredo, dumping his body in a river. This closure allows Anna to move on with her life, until she receives a telephone call from Alfredo and a series of sinister games follow: is Alfredo really dead?
Ironically, in fighting the stasis of the passive role of women as objects of the assaultive gaze, Anna’s own active, assaultive gaze leads to her victimisation. She eventually succumbs to her condition as the lines between reality and hallucination become blurred, culminating in a scene in which Anna covers her naked body in paint and curls into a foetal position. La Sindrome di Stendhal therefore belongs to the cinema of painting in its formal and stylistic design and, in doing so, it offers a complex commentary upon the link between art, psychosis, and the assaultive gaze upon the female form.