The Stendhal Syndrome: Deconstructing the Rape Revenge Genre
This a video essay by Kyle Hintz on Dario Argento's "The Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) and its deconstruction of the rape revenge genre.
The Stendhal Syndrome: Deconstructing the Rape Revenge Genre
by Kyle Hintz
The Stendhal Syndrome, Dario Argento's twelfth feature film, breaks from the giallo genre he helped popularize to deconstruct another, the rape revenge genre.
The film opens with Anna Manni, played by his own daughter Asia Argento, on the streets of Florence. She moves anonymously among throngs of tourists, viewing the classical art on display in the Uffizi gallery. Her identity unknown to us as the art begins to overwhelm her, triggering hallucinations and causing her to faint, splitting her lip and drawing blood before she enters Pieter Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. And like Icarus, she falls into the sea. She has been stricken with the Stendhal Syndrome, a genuine psychosomatic condition occurring when individuals become overwhelmed by great works of art. A condition which afflicted Argento himself as a child during a trip to Athens.
Anna's memory and identity are erased by art. Upon returning to her hotel, Anna cannot escape the art all around her, in the halls, the elevator, her room. She covers a painting with a towel, recalling Frau Bruckner in Phenomena who covered all the mirrors in her home to shield her deformed son from his own hideous reflection, thus drawing a parallel between the reflexive nature of art and mirrors. Both reflect, refract, distort and shatter identities.Mirrors are a recurring motif throughout Argento's filmography. As is the relationship between art and violence. They often reveal a key clue, unlocking the damaged identity of a victim-turned-killer, or predicting it.
Anna enters Rembrandt's The Night Watch, triggering a flashback and emerging at a crime scene in Rome. We discover that she is a police officer with the anti-rape unit hunting a serial rapist/killer, Alfredo Grossi. She received an anonymous tip that she would find him at the Uffizi gallery. Before the plot is even set into motion, what would be the central mystery of a giallo - Who is the killer? Is revealed almost immediately. Which in turn reveals Argento's true interest: who is the victim? And what is the psychological toll?
Just as Anna recovers her masculine identity as a police officer, Alfredo unceremoniously rips it from her, stealing her badge and gun, and then viciously raping her. He fetishizes her loss of identity caused by the Stendhal Syndrome, saying he wants her like she was in the museum. He cuts her mouth to imitate her bleeding lip. And she becomes an object through which he can feel, a mirror through which his warped identity is reflected and confirmed.
He beats her unconscious. She awakes in a car to find Alfredo assaulting another woman, forced to watch, helpless and now a voyeur to what she herself just suffered. Alfredo gleefully murders the woman, shooting her through the mouth, the bullet piercing each cheek, then he stares at Anna through the wound, visually emphasizing his misogynist point-of-view. Literally viewing Anna through his violent acts, and using her as a mirror to reflect his own twisted identity. His attack usurps her identity as police officer and recasts her as victim.
Anna is then treated by a male doctor, counseled by a male psychiatrist, and judged by a room full of imposing middle-aged men, including her direct superior Inspector Manetti. She tells her psychiatrist that she went to the Uffizi gallery on an anonymous tip she received from a woman saying the killer would be there. This tip is later revealed to have come from Alfredo, using a voice changer to sound like a woman, the masculine masquerading as feminine to lure Anna. She thought she would be able to catch or kill Alfredo, thus confirming her masculine professional identity. But instead she succumbed to the Stendhal Syndrome, was stripped of her identity, and victimized.
In the wake of her attack, she adopts masculine traits: first cutting her hair short, wearing men's clothing, then indulging in masochistic self-harm, refusing medical attention and what's more refusing to acknowledge pain.
On leave from work, she returns to her hometown. Her brothers mock her boyish appearance, her father questions the need for psychological counseling and her police officer boyfriend Marco all but ignores her attack. As part of her therapy, she takes up painting, these paintings reflecting her inner turmoil. She rekindles childhood friendships, sparring with male friends at the local gym which eventually erupts into violence when her blood is spilled, and later when Marco tries to initiate sex she explodes, adopting the masculine role and casting him in the feminine, subjecting him to a simulated rape.
In a sequence straight out of a giallo, we adopt Alfredo's point of view as he seduces, rapes and murders his next victim. This seemingly incongruent scene reflects the beginning of Anna's identification with Alfredo, her point of view shifting from victim to attacker. Meanwhile, Anna speaks with Alfredo's surviving victims. One woman is too traumatized to discuss her attack, another draws comparisons between her attacker and her ex-husband, almost passively accepting her assault as a given, part of the collateral damage of a patriarchal society.
Then Alfredo attacks Anna again, proving that her adoption of masculinity does not make her invulnerable. He binds her to a ratty mattress in a graffiti covered lair and he cuts himself, dripping his blood onto her, transferring his diseased masculinity. Later, she turns the tables on Alfredo, gouging out one of his eyes in a retaliatory penetration and beating him within an inch of his life. As she drags the beaten and dazed Alfredo to a precipice overlooking a waterfall, she begins to imitate his casually cruel demeanor, adopting the identity of her attacker, before kicking him over the edge and into a treacherous waterfall to certain death.
Typically, this is where the rape-revenge genre would find its just desserts, enacting the cathartic second half of the drama: the justified revenge. But this is only the halfway point of the Stendhal Syndrome's narrative. Argento is interested not in the false catharsis of revenge but in the true consequences of trauma.
After exacting her vengeance, Anna dons a platinum blonde wig, recalling Alfredo's bleach blonde locks while metatextually referencing Hitchcock's blonde female stereotype, as well as the archetypal femme fatale of film noir. Knowing full well Alfredo is dead, she refuses to believe this fact, certain he is still out there, still haunting her. While in effect, she is becoming him.
She initiates a relationship with a french art student named Mari, an obvious reference to 19th century french author Stendhal after whom the condition takes its name, whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. Mari plays the feminine role in their relationship, allowing Anna to play the masculine. Eventually Alfredo's body is recovered from the river, proving without a doubt that he is dead.
But Anna's trauma continues to fester, culminating in the murders of Mari, her psychiatrist and Marco, and resulting in the total obliteration of her fragmented identity. When the police finder her, she is reduced to a near-schizophrenic state, frantically wandering the streets and mumbling to herself.
Her revenge did not right the initial wrong of her attack, instead she fully internalized her attacker and became him. Though Alfredo died, she was still haunted by and unable to escape him. Thus what began as a physical and emotional invasion evolved in a mental and spiritual possession, refuting the traditional one-two punch of the genre whereby the inciting rape knocks the world into imbalance and the revenge re-balances that world. No, Argento reflects the darker reality of sexual assault by showing us the repercussions of such an attack. Try as she might, nothing Anna does can erase it. She cannot ignore the pain by adopting masculine coping mechanisms, therapy cannot dispel it, her masculine profession cannot protect her, nor her masculine colleagues, they can barely acknowledge her trauma in their rush to use her either professionally or sexually. Even revenge is an insufficient solution, leading Anna to embody her attacker and fully sublimate her identity to his. Rather than erasing her trauma, she erases her self.