Friday, May 13, 2005

The Stendhal Syndrome

Ever since a friend of mine described the Argento film's premise, I've been fascinated by the idea of the Stendhal Syndrome. In early 19th-century terms, it's the condition of being almost unpleasantly overwhelmed by visual art.

In our psycho-analytic age, it's the condition of being so overwhelmed by visual art that the sense of self and reality fall apart so that the seeing subject enters into a psychotic fugue, as defense mechanism.

The Italian tourist bureau seems to believe that the phenomenon is real. The Stendhal Syndrome, plausible or not, is a wonderful instance of rhetoric's meeting its best audience: an audience that will hallucinate being inside the artists' tropes.

From my film school friend's description, the syndrome always seemed so poetic to me: being overwhelmed by a work of art, well that's the sublime, and feeling that one is inside a work of art, well that's the absorptive aspect of aesthetic reponse, described by Michael Fried among others.

But then I saw the Argento film. I'm not a big fan of Argento; I saw Suspiria and was profoundly shocked: perhaps he was effective in that, but it took me years to dare to see The Stendhal Syndrome, which had been recommended to me years before. I recognize Argento's power: he managed to upset me so much with Suspiria that the idea of watching another of his films required about three years' interval.

Argento's Stendhal Syndrome, much as I'd like to disavow it, is extraordinary. There are two strands: the psychical condition of a young police-woman who suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, and her interactions with a serial rapist/killer who has fixated upon her. In a very strange twist, it is Argento's daughter, the beautiful Asia Argento, who plays the central female character; she gets beaten, raped, nearly killed, but she also lies, fights, and kills. She goes more than slightly mad over the course of the film, and one is offered a range of diagnoses: job-stress, unhealthy family life, post-traumatic rape, Stendhal Syndrome, or paranoia.

Here's what disturb to me: the film seems to presume a kind od possesion: the woman begins to take on some of the characteristics of her rapist, as though she were experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Argento could be praised for his unfliching view of how rape can screw up the psychologies of otherwise well-functioning women but there is something in this transition from docile female to wrecked, yet autonomous quasi-lesbian figure that deserves parsing.


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