GIRL IN THE MIRROR
…sweating in the sun that melted the wings’ wax…
William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”
Sometimes there are days like this: you come home spun and pre-hypnotized by impressions and worries that have accumulated imperceptibly, like a thin layer of coral polyps gently chewing away at your nervous system. You forget completely about all the tasks and texts waiting on your desk and reach out for a late Dario Argento film which you know is guaranteed to be shitty—it’s just a matter of how.
It was in this fashion, searching for dense oblivion, that I inflicted upon myself The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), a psychedelically terrible film—with the emphasis on “psychedelically.” A cross between a degraded Vertigo and a porno: the formalist in me watched it for the sole pleasure of unconcealed plot construction.
The film follows the adventures and transformations of Anna Manni—Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, in her first role for the big screen. Anna, a detective, is chased by a serial killer and rapist through a series of metamorphoses, each of her new personas spawning yet another exploitative scenario, so that by the end we feel that we’ve been through five films, not one. Every scene in the film, even the ones that do not directly involve rape—there is hardly any other kind of sex in it—is already pushed to the border of a pornographic arrangement that uncoils in the viewer’s head automatically, not requiring any further enactment on screen. In this way, this otherwise C-grade exploitation film actually betrays some subtle cunning and displays an insidious ability to crawl under your skin, infecting you and activating the storehouse of lurid associations.
When we first meet Asia she is dressed like a student in some expensive private boarding school—white blouse, reasonable skirt, long black hair parted in the middle—and is on her way to the museum to see a Botticelli. Nympha, the animating spirit of energy and imitation theorized by Aby Warburg—and playing, in Botticelli’s painting, through the hair and folds of fabric covering Venus and Spring—reaches Asia as well. A hallucination she experiences after a fainting spell shows her falling into water, following Icarus in Bruegel’s eponymous work, before meeting a fish with human eyes, which she kisses. The Warburgian force that propels the evolution of art forms touches her—and pulls her into a messy horror story with much added paint drip.
After she comes to, she realizes that her lip is bleeding and that she doesn’t know who she is.
Later she discovers that she is Anna, a young woman surrounded by men. She is a detective in all-male police department, sent to Florence to capture a notorious rapist who’s been on the loose for some time. Instead, the rapist captures her, though in a very unusual manner: it is he who has invited her to the Uffizi, having intuited somehow that there Anna would be suddenly overtaken by the so-called Stendhal syndrome, the psychic malady that affects already troubled tourists in Italy upon experiencing famous works of art. (The phenomenon was first described by Stendhal in his diary of Italian travels, hence the name.) He then sneaks into Anna’s hotel room—where she lies on the ground, having fainted after gazing at a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Night Watch—cuts her lip with a razor, rapes her, shoots another woman in the face in front of her, and lets her escape.
After this experience Anna begins to morph: first into a short-haired and very elegant boy who boxes with her hammy brothers, then into an expressionistic abstract painter. The second time Anna is captured by her rapist, he uses items from a museum gift store as his traps—he stuns her by decorating her room with posters of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus. To torture her some more, he takes her into a cave whose walls are covered with very bad graffiti, and leaves another scar on her cheek. Anna kills him, by, of course, gouging out his eyes, and throws his body into a waterfall. Back in Rome, she remakes herself as a blond doll, a murderous femme fatale, a parody of sinister feminine artifice: long wig, flowing white dresses, a cigarette, dark shades, a scar, naturally, and an innocent new French art-student boyfriend—a lamb to her slaughter.
While Anna’s entrapment in her pathology is brought on by the masterpieces of Western art, the viewer’s own snaring is achieved through the most basic exploitative erotica—with the profanation of the cultural heritage providing added pleasure, as images from the Uffizi collection become the primary vehicles for all the cheap and contrived erotic scenarios: the one is eventually revealed to be the twisted underside of the other. In other words, Argento exploits the cultural patrimony first (Botticcelli, Caravaggio, but also Bruegel and Rembrandt for good measure) and women only second.
Besides, Asia is a resilient creature, decisively hard to exploit no matter how many dirty and hairy hands are placed on Anna. The picaresque transformations of her character might be gratuitous, but in fact she seems to be already playing all the roles she’d go on to play in her other films. In other words, she is recognizably herself. Here’s a sullen girl with a cigarette smearing her makeup in front of the mirror, and here comes a platinum blond wig (hello to the future self playing Cindy Sherman in The Doll Is Mine). Here’s another cigarette, a hand bandage, a scar, and here she is rolling in paint, hoping for a picture-perfect disappearance. All of this gives the rest of the swirl of this ridiculously-poorly-stitched-together plot—motivated solely by a need to multiply the heroine for the sake of the maximum proliferation of porn scenarios—a bizarre flavor of familiarity. The real, bored, and permanently pissed-off girl stands out in a phosphorescent puddle of exploitation-slime.
The film pursues a double agenda: while Argento-father is on a mission to profane the European art canon by turning it into a vessel of rotten and putrid “bunga bunga” sleaze, Argento-daughter, with each tired heavy look at her own reflection, is a force of a teenage, pure, and feral authenticity, permanently amazed and desiring only the violence of transformation that she herself can inflict on a girl she sees in the mirror.