Monday, August 16, 2021

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and The Card Player (2004)

Anna Manni is a cop working a special case in Florence, tracking a rapist and now murderer to a museum. While there she is suddenly and unexpectedly overtaken by the beauty of the art, to the point of passing out into a strange hallucination, and suffering a loss of memory. A witness to this is the rapist Alfredo, who kidnaps and assaults Anna. She is able to escape, but is traumatised from the experience, and begins to change... 

The Stendhal Syndrome is one of the odder entries in Dario Argento's canon, which is certainly saying something! Both applauded and criticised for this same reason, it's a departure from the Giallos he usually made. The film is a dark portrayal of rape and trauma, and we follow the psychological journey of Anna Manni after her assault.

The film's structure is where my problems began with it. We start off partway through the story, with zero context at all, and before we even know what's going on Anna is already fainting from the artwork. Things do become clear, and we understand the backstory before too long, making this a pretty effective, albeit extremely abrupt, introduction.

What's harder to look past is what comes after. Anna is kidnapped and assaulted, and then gets away. We focus on her getting psychological help, working on the case, visiting home, etc. Then she is kidnapped and assaulted again. This time she actually turns the tables and gets her revenge. It's a great scene, but I did wonder why it didn't happen earlier. It feels like the film reels got mixed up, and the first half of the film was gonna be the capture, then the revenge, with the second half being the psychological journey.

The film's connection with the titular syndrome is tenuous at best. It's integral to the first scene, and the motel ambush, but after that first attack it really has no business coming up again and again how it does. It felt like the movie was desperately trying to justify the name by dropping it every few minutes. Then in the second half it's almost completely dropped.

A highlight of the film are the hallucinatory 'fantasy' sequences. When Anna is overtaken by the art, we see her walk inside the paintings, making for some unique imagery. Sure, it's not the best CGI in the world (and the scene where Anna makes out with a giant fake fish will either make or break the film for you), but for its time, for the kind of film this is, and for Italy's first computer effects, it's not bad by any stretch. The other scenes though? They're bizarrely terrible, not to mention random!

The Stendhal Syndrome is by and large a character portrait, so it's important that Anna Manni be a well-written character. Whether she is or not depends. Some viewers might find her a strong portrayal of trauma, while others might find her flat, uninteresting, or unlikeable. She's a mix of everything for me, changing from scene to scene.

Alfredo is a great villain. Charming at first, before revealing himself to be sleazy, degenerate, and cruel. One weird touch is a distorted voice he's sometimes given, that brings to mind the trombone parents from Peanuts. It's already strange on its own, but making it even more so is that we know who this guy is! We've seen his face, and heard his voice.

Alfredo's end comes at the halfway point, in a spectacular revenge by Anna. She even gets a cheesy one-liner-"You have the right to shut up!". There's some grisly moments here, making for an effective sequence. Alfredo becomes a bit of a dope, like when Anna's gun clicks empty and he starts laughing. I don't know what he's so happy about, he's been stabbed twice, shot once, and is missing an eye! Just cause she's out of ammo doesn't mean he's got the upper hand!

I feel like the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to push this whole idea that Alfredo could still be alive, but since Argento clearly wanted his table turning to be the violent setpiece of the movie, it erases any possibility that he could be. We know the fucker's dead! And we also know that Anna's off her rocker, so when people start turning up dead while she creepily stares at people, it's really not that much of a leap. It makes for a fairly tedious 50 minutes.

The film suffers from the main villain's absence. I understand that he's dead, but since Anna is going crazy we could at least continue seeing Alfredo in hallucinations and hauntings. Instead the movie's main antagonist dies at the hour mark, leaving a whole other hour with no-one.

Anna has two love interests in the film. A colleague who has the hots for her, but no success, and a Frenchman by the name of Marie. From seeing that name in the cast list, I was under the impression Anna would suddenly begin prowling after a woman, to psychologically emulate Alfredo, but instead it's just a random dude. Still, it's handled decently so I can't complain. He's amusingly French, and instead of going "I love you"-"You too", it's "I want to make love to you"-"You too".

Alfredo's wife is an interesting character, not because of what she does, but what she could've been. There has to be a reason for including her, so you naturally expect something. Like did she know or suspect about her husband? If she did know, was she a party to anything, or somehow supporting him? Or maybe she's hopelessly devoted to him and blames Anna for killing an 'innocent man', and she could be the real killer of the second half in a crazy twist! I think that could've saved the last act. But instead she's never seen or heard of again. Anna's family likewise doesn't appear enough, which a shame considering how important they might be to her psychology.

The acting is mixed. Asia Argento is good in places, and I applaud her for taking on a role like this. But she acts strangely half the time. I understand that a rape victim might be erratic, but her performance is downright unhinged! Thomas Kretschmann delivers a great performance as the deranged Alfredo, and is missed in the second half. Italian genre stalwarts Veronica Lazar and Cinzia Monreal are a welcome presence, despite all too short screentimes.

Direction-wise, this looks good, but it notably doesn't resemble any of Argento's previous works. All his familiar motifs are for the most part absent, and the film has a very singular style not shared by anything else in filmography. The colour scheme is very naturalistic too.

The focus on art here is done well. Classical paintings are scene all over the place, regardless of how strange (why does the police chief have an enormous painting in his office waiting room?), and they are often neat choices. It's also interesting seeing the art that Anna paints, and what her mental state draws.

The music by Ennio Morricone is good, giving an ethereal and eerie note to events. The audio is a bit weird at times though. In one scene it's like trying to watch a movie when someone's got a TV or radio playing something in the next room

The Stendhal Syndrome is a mixed bag. It's very easy to see how it can be so divisive. Some love it, some hate it, and I was in-between. Because of its good qualities, I'd say it's still a must watch if you're an Argento fan, even if you may have many of the same criticisms I had.

The Card Player

The city of Rome is shocked when a serial killer calling himself The Card Player emerges, kidnapping women and livestreaming their murders if the police fail to beat him in an online game of poker. Detective Anna Mari heads the investigation to catch him, together with foreign officer John Brennan, and young card expert Remo...

Before we get into the actual movie, The Card Player was originally intended to be a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome, featuring Anna Manni's next case. This fell through for a few reasons, such as Asia Argento choosing not to reprise the role, busy elsewhere. This framework can still be detected though, such as the lead's name-Anna Mari. So how does this stack up as a theoretical sequel? Oh, not at all. Anna Manni could never be in a sequel. She killed people! Even if she only targeted rapists or murderers, and was found innocent by insanity and eventually rehabilitated, I doubt she'd get her job back. But she brutally murdered three completely innocent people! She ain't gettin' no more cases!

I went into The Card Player optimistic. I've always had the hope that it was an unsung gem, or at least halfway decent, but it took only 5 minutes for that optimism to be crushed. The film is better than Phantom of the Opera, but nowhere near the entertaining but slightly spotty Sleepless.

The Card Player's big hook is its focus on technology, with E-poker playing a large role in events. The film does an alright job of establishing the rules for newcomers, though I'm still mystified by how you can be good at a game based on pure chance. I also find the film's explanation for why the killer isn't cheating to be pretty funny. "It's very complicated to explain, but we can rule it out". Too complicated to explain so we won't bother. Even back then this E-poker game was cheesy, but despite all this I do think at admirable that Argento at least attempted to tackle how modern serial killers might adapt as technology advances.

The games succeed in not being tedious or samey. The film has a sneaky way of changing things up each time. Instead of "The cops play, lose, girl dies, they play, lose, girl dies, etc" , the first time they refuse to play, the second time they lose, and in the third, something completely unpredicted happens.

The film has a few other suspenseful setpieces, including an effective home invasion sequence. It also contains some facepalming levels of idiocy. Anna sees the intruder outside her patio door and goes out to investigate...with the door wide open, and her gun on a coffee table! After a quick scan she concludes that he mustn't exist anymore, and promptly goes back inside, and no surprise what happens next. Be I ever so stupid, I'd at least give myself enough credit to not leave the door *wide open* and unguarded while looking for a home invader outside! At one point she has the drop on him, but for no reason goes and hides behind a couch. Bitch, bop him on the noggin', you'll save everyone a lot of trouble, and end the movie 45 minutes early!

Anna Mari is a decent protagonist, but never makes that strong of an impression. She's strongminded, but also motherly to Remo. There's a resident grumpy police chief, who gets a bit of flack from Anna, like his refusal to allow the first game. She acts like he's a scumbag, but he's totally correct! You shouldn't negotiate with serial killers, or take them at their word. I bet if they had've won that game he still would've slashed her throat.

John is a perceptive and unorthodox cop. He's the first to pipe up in accepting the killer's challenge, yet doesn't put his money where his mouth is, and watches on as other people play. Still, he is a good supporting protagonist. Remo is a fairly likeable guy, and has a nice (if brief) romance with the rescued Chief's daughter. The only thing that disappointed me was his end.

That leads me into a problem I had-The fates of these two characters. I think one dying could have worked. After all, you've got the grizzled old burnout who sacrifices himself. That's good, right? But both dying is a owner, and feels unjustified. Both deaths show a great deal of stupidity too. When John discovers the killer's lair, for some inexplicable reason he chooses to go completely on his own! No warning, no backup, he doesn't even tell anyone where he is. And he's also totally unaware that this might be a trap, despite being obvious, especially considering the other tricks and bluffs John worked out. Dumbass!

I figured out who the killer was immediately. The very first lines of the film are when a coworker approaches Anna with a birthday present, and the declaration of "I know everything about you". The only other suspect is the other coworker who fancies her. I swear, they're like sparrows at this station. When we get the reveal, my reaction was "...Um, ok? Who's he again?". He's some random dude who likes Anna. That's literally it. It's not a spoiler for me to tell you he's the killer, simply because he has no character. He's just some guy who's occasionally in the background, with no exploration or development, hardly any dialogue, and no motive for us to hear.

There's also a twist that really wasn't thought through. The surprise is that the livestreams are pre-recorded, which I figured out only 20 minutes in (I felt very proud of myself!). This didn't make any sense though. I figured it would be explained as the movie progressed, but nope! It only grew and grew in my mind, and was never satisfyingly explained. If these videos are pre-recorded, how did he predict their moves? How did he know they wouldn't play one? How did the girl who escaped sync up? How did he know they'd win one match?

The climax is a reasonably tense sequence. It's a little silly seeing these two play a chintzy E-poker game on the train tracks, and is equally so how much Anna takes his game on faith, but otherwise it's fine, and has enough thrills.

The ending itself is hilarious! As Anna walks home, she gets the most random call imaginable. A doctor we've never seen before rings up to say "Congratulations Anna, you're pregnant!", and she smiles as the movie ends. Whaaaaat? This raises a lot of questions, like why was Anna having unprotected sex with her coworker on the first 'date', and how she could be pregnant after less than a week. I don't mind though, as it's a happy ending, and so hilariously out of left field you're guaranteed to end the movie with a smile on your face.

In terms of visuals, The Card Player never really has any flair. Make no mistake, it's never bad. This is a well directed film, but very by-the-numbers, and never even attempts reaching the heights of Argento's earlier works, and he ambitious direction that would often attempt. There are 3 exceptions to this. The home invasion sequence has a great touch, the chase through the river catacomb is neat, and so is the scene where John goes through the killer's garden, and seeds fly through the air.

The acting in The Card Player is decent to poor. Stefania Rocca is usually a reliable actress, but is pretty bad here, which I blame on the direction. Liam Cunningham fares better, if for no other reason than he actually speaks English as a first language. Claudio Santamaria is over-the-top as the killer, and Silvo Muccino is decent as the young card player.

This might seem like a strange thing to mention, but I liked how much the actors smiled in this movie. Maybe it's because movies like this are all so glum, The Card Player included, so having characters who at least smile helps alleviate that feeling.

The score isn't very good. The main theme is alright, and you've got a few decently suspenseful or spooky tracks, but mostly it's just mediocre and quite dated techno stuff. The climax features the ill-advised decision to have the killer blare crappy techno music during the final game. It sucks all the atmosphere out of the scene! I'm not saying a little techno music would go astray, but my problem with the killer actually setting it up on his radio means it must continue uninterrupted, no matter what. That's no fun! It's even more ludicrous when he says the reason is so she can't hear when the train is coming! Dude, it's a train! Do you seriously think your dinky little radio is gonna drown it out? Also I know Techno music can make a din, but it can't out-vibrate a moving train!

The Card Player is pretty lousy stuff. It's not the worst film I've ever seen, and not the worst Argento film, but not by much. This is definitely one of his skippable entries, unless you're a completionist or a glutton for punishment...

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