Gender Transgression in The Stendhal Syndrome

At face value, The Stendhal Sydrome could be just another Argento giallo with a woman as the central character. However, close examination reveals the film to be far more complex than this. In the film the central female character alternates between feminine and masculine identities. The idea of transsexuality instigated by Tenebrae is continued, but in a very different way. However, before looking at The Stendhal Syndrome, it is worth considering Freud's theories about Medusa and how closely they relate to Argento's narrative.

On two occasions during the Stendhal Syndrome, we encounter representations of Medusa: first at the start of the film in the Ufizzi Gallery, and once again at the Etruscan gallery in a flashback to Anna Manni's (Asia Argento) childhood. These sightings of Medusa provide a link between the film and Freud's essay, 'Medusa's Head'. In the essay, Freud identifies conflicting ideas that arise from the sight of Medusa's severed head. Freud states that decapitation symbolises castration. The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration linked to the sight of something. The hair upon Medusa's head is frequently represented in works of art in the form of snakes, also derived from the castration complex. However they serve as a mitigation of the horror as they replace the penis, the absence of which causes the horror. The sight of Medusa turns the viewer to stone, makes him stiff with terror, or gives him an erection that reassures him of the fact that he still possesses a penis. The virgin goddess Athene wears the image of Medusa on her dress and becomes a woman who is unapproachable and repels all sexual desires - since she displays the terrifying genitals of the mother. (1).

These conflicting ideas are useful in assessing the gender crisis suffered by Anna during the film, and the bizarre, sadistic behaviour of Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), the serial rapist/murderer. It is Alfredo who initiates the gender confusions within the film when he makes the first telephone call to Anna, in order to lure her to the Ufizzi Gallery. Anna believes that the call is from an anonymous woman who wants to help catch the rapist, but Alfredo is using an electronic gadget to make him sound like a woman. During the course of the film Anna goes through three phases of identity/gender changes as discussed below.

a) Anna as a woman.

Anna is a police detective, traditionally a male role, tracking down a serial rapist/killer, she also boxes with male sparring partners. Her name, Manni carries male signifiers, whilst her boss's name Manetti similarly suggests 'man', but in a diminutive form. She suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, a condition that causes her to hallucinate and faint when confronted by great works of art. The condition also brings about depression and personality changes. It was first written about by the French novelist Stendhal, whose diary contained an account of his visit to the Church at Santa Croce, where he fainted in sympathetic response to a painting. (2). An anonymous telephone call from a 'woman' leads Anna to the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence in search of the rapist, Alfredo. During her tour of the gallery the camera invites us to share her point of view. When she looks at Botticelli's Primavera, we see her reflection on the protective glass, it is also our reflection; the audience identifies with Anna.

She starts to feel unwell as a result of the overpowering effects of the gallery. This feeling is conveyed by the diegetic sounds she hears within her own head, such as horses galloping and the noise of battle, spurred on by Uccello's painting, The Rout of San Romano. The non-diegetic music also builds up, and then reaches a crescendo when she is confronted by an image of Medusa's decapitated head, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, with her terrifying expression brightly lit up, painted on a shield for the Medici Armoury by Caravaggio; a practical use of the apotropaic effect of the female genitals that Freud speaks about: "What arouses horror in oneself will produce the same effect upon the enemy against whom one is seeking to defend oneself." (3). Anna faints and bashes her mouth against a ledge. At the moment of impact, Argento cuts to a close-up shot of her lying on the floor; her police-issue gun is protruding from the open bag. When she regains consciousness, we are again showed a close-up of the bag, but now the gun has gone. Alfredo has taken it. The loss of the gun, and the bashing of her teeth as Anna falls, construct her as a castrated woman, with Alfredo in possession of the phallus/gun. Of course Anna does not know this and she accepts his assistance and a handkerchief to wipe her bleeding mouth.

He helps her into a taxi and she stares at him whilst winding up the open car window. When the window is fully wound up, we see Alfredo's reflection juxtaposed with close-up Anna's face peering out of the window. The reflection of his body takes up half of the frame and Anna's face the remainder. This shot predicts the invasion and possession of Anna's body and mind by Alfredo, which will occur during the course of the film. The open-mouthed Medusa, and Anna's injured mouth introduce a recurring oral motif within the film. In her discussion of oral sadism Barbara Creed explains that myth, legend and the history of taboos make it clear that children identify the vagina with the mouth: "Sexual pleasure is also bound up with the excitation of the mouth and lips and continues in this form into adult life. It is the connection between orality and sexuality which is of particular relevance to a discussion of the child's understanding of the nature of female genitals". (4).

Creed goes on to consider the child, whose experiences of the world are all marked by oral influences; sucking and biting etc., and the terror he must feel if he sees the mother as a castrating figure, and has projected an image of a mouth onto her female genital area. (5). When Anna takes medication in her hotel room, Argento has the camera follow the path of the pills down her throat into her stomach; the camera is invading her body as Alfredo will, but it enters her through her mouth, drawing a connection between orality and sexuality. Alfredo appears in her room, his reflection is shown once again next to hers in the glass covering the print on her wall. He throws her on to the bed and says: "I want you the way you were this morning, with your lips bleeding, I wanted so badly to kiss your mouth, your bleeding lips". He produces a razor blade from his own mouth, cuts her lower lip, and rapes her. The act of concealing a razor within a mouth, and of cutting her lip can be seen as a reference to the vagina dentata; the power of the woman to castrate. "Men hate and fear women because as castrated they reactivate childhood fears of literal castration, and because they may at any time reject their status as castrated and attempt to appropriate the symbolic phallus" (6).

By cutting Anna's mouth, Alfredo is reconstructing her as castrated, as 'bearer of the bleeding wound' (7). This act reassures him of his masculinity and possession of the phallus, but it also raises the same paradox as contained within Freud's essay on Medusa. Her decapitated head represents castration whilst the hair/snakes mitigate the horror and replace the penis. Creed argues that Medusa's head with its snarling mouth and fanged snakes is a seething array of vagina dentata, not a multiplication of the penis, but of the woman's power to castrate; containing no comforting elements whatsoever. (8). It is ironic that Alfredo should also give rise to the same imagery; bloodied lips are usually associated with the vampire, the most common form of the vagina dentata in horror films. In seeking to reassure himself of his own power, he has raised the spectre of his own destruction, because later in the film Anna does reject her status as castrated. She overpowers Alfredo and appropriates the symbolic phallus.

b) Anna as a man.

Her femininity is suppressed as she changes her appearance, and certain traits associated with Alfredo come to the surface. On at least two occasions she talks like Alfredo, and she directly quotes him prior to killing him. After her brutalising experience, Anna cuts her hair and changes her clothing from a dress to a baggy grey jacket and trousers, which make her appear more masculine. She indulges in acts of self-mutilation; she jabs a paperclip under her fingernails at the police hearing, and she cuts herself with a broken wine glass on the train. Before breaking the glass she stares into the red wine at her own reflection, this scene can be seen as a reference to the final scene in Deep Red, where Marcus looks into a pool of blood at his reflection. Like Marcus, Anna has experienced the most appalling acts of violence and has become tainted by them.

Back in Rome she rejects her colleague/boyfriend, Marco's (Marco Leonardi), advances. She hints at her change of identity by telling him, "I'm not your woman anymore". She means that she doesn't want anything to do with him outside of their working relationship, but she also implies that she is literally not anybody's woman; she's not a woman at all. When Marco visits her at her apartment she pushes him face first against the wall, and simulates violent sex with him whilst mouthing abuse. She later explains to her psychologist, Dr Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli), "I wanted to fuck him like a man would. The idea of sex makes me puke. I keep cutting myself". Dr Cavanna puts her condition down to self-loathing due to being raped, and suggests that she takes a break and goes back to her hometown of Viterbo.

Anna has entered a new phase of identity, and she feels that Alfredo is somehow still inside her. At her family home in Viterbo, her brothers upset her by telling her that she looks like a man. Robin Wood discusses Freud's Oedipus complex in relation to the female child and her concept of castration. The girl finding that little boys do have penises, fears that she has already lost hers. (9). The anonymity of her mother, and her absence from the home when Anna returns, suggests that her mother left, or died. This means Anna and her two brothers were left to be brought up by her father. She grew up in a totally male environment. She tells Dr Cavanna that she joined the police force to get away from Viterbo. When her father learns that she has seen a psychologist, he seems to be very uneasy, and he loses his temper when Anna's brothers tell her she looks like a boy.

She has a flashback to a childhood experience at the local Etruscan museum. She often visited the museum with her mother, an artist who was attempting to teach her art history. Her father never accompanied them on these excursions. On this occasion she was looking at some Etruscan statues and carvings when she started to experience nausea and fainted. Her mother rushed into the room to look after her. We see the reflection of her mother's body, but not her face. The mother remains anonymous. We do however see the grotesque carved representation of Medusa's face, mouth wide open with her tongue lolling out. Medusa's face replaces the mother's. This flashback, and memory of her mother urges Anna to try art as therapy. She covers her walls in large painted images of open mouths.

Alfredo abducts Anna from her room utilising the telephone routine familiar to us from films like Black Christmas (USA, 1974, d. Bob Clark) and Scream (USA, 1997, d. Wes Craven), where the menacing call is made from within the house. This time the caller is in the same room, using a mobile phone. He takes her to a cave-like hideout covered in graffiti. The walls are adorned with serpents, and a huge bear-like creature with bat ears and an exaggerated penis. Alfredo rapes her again then leaves her alone, tied to an old bed. He had been studying art prints, and predicting the effect they would have on Anna, but he had obviously not given much thought to the images within his own lair. The serpent is one face of the vagina dentata, straight from Medusa's head. At this point Anna suffers her final attack of the Stendhal Syndrome. All her previous attacks had been brought on by exposure to high art, but this last hallucination is influenced by the graffiti. It proves to be her saviour; the over-endowed bear creature lunges at her and empowers her with the phallus. When Alfredo returns she overpowers him and regains control of her gun/phallus, and turns it against him; she has rejected her status as castrated.

In some ways the film departs somewhat from the generic conventions of the rape/revenge film as categorised by Carol Clover. Alfredo is portrayed as a handsome professional man, quite the opposite from the sleazy lowlife rapists that feature in I Spit on your Grave (USA, 1978, d. Meir Zarchi) and House at the Edge of the Park (Italy, 1980, d. Ruggero Deodato). He follows a shop assistant on her way home from work and presents her with a rose. She is suitably charmed by him, and allows him to walk with her whilst she tells him about her recent problems with men. We see her from Alfredo's point of view, when he speaks to her we hear his voice as distorted gibberish, but she understands him. Argento is allowing us some insight into the killer's disturbed mind. However, the shop assistant discovers this too late; she leads Alfredo to a secluded place frequented by prostitutes and their clients, where he rapes and murders her.

In another departure from generic convention, Argento actually has Anna take on the role of rapist; she symbolically rapes Marco when she simulates sex with him. However, in the manner of the more traditional genre films, she adopts the position of Final Girl and castrates the monster. Anna has several attempts on Alfredo's life before she throws him over the ledge into gushing water; we are treated to repeated images of subjection. (10). She penetrates Alfredo's neck with a straightened bedspring, his eye with her finger and his body with bullets. The gun and bullets have been phallicised by Alfredo's method of shooting his victims at the point of his orgasm; and his reflection is caught on the side of one of his bullets, mid-flight, during the murder of the shop assistant.

c) Anna as a man in drag.

After Alfredo's death Anna seems to recover from the self-loathing, and the Stendhal Syndrome. She re-feminises herself, dons a long blonde wig and dates a boy called Marie, several people comment on the feminine nature of his name during the film. But this new persona can be seen as representing Alfredo in drag, controlling half of her mind. Like Norman Bates and his 'mother' in Psycho (USA, 1960, d. Alfred Hitchcock), if the part of her person that is Anna expresses desire, then the part that is Alfredo will destroy the object of that desire. Marie is doomed. During a later visit to Dr Cavanna, Anna is shown sitting with her back to us smoking a cigarette, the blinds are down, and they cast shadows across her blonde hair and back. The scene can be seen as a reference to 1940's film noir; Anna is depicted as a femme fatale, the fetishised, phallic woman. Men may chose to create a fetish in order to believe that a woman is like himself, has a phallus instead of a vagina. This disavows the idea of the woman as castrated or castrating. (11). Like the traditional femme fatale, Anna has a gun in her purse, but this phallic woman does not offer comfort. "The femme fatale is noted for changeability and treachery. But in the noir thriller, not only is the hero frequently not sure whether the woman is honest or a deceiver, but the heroine's characterisation is itself fractured so that it is not evident to the audience whether she fills the stereotype or not." (12).

To achieve this effect in Anna, Argento sets up Dr Cavanna as a possible murder suspect after Marie's death. Cavanna had arrived quickly on the scene although he could not have known of the crime. He also turns up unannounced at Anna's door, she is afraid of him because he knows her as well as she knows herself. At this point in the film we are led to believe that Anna's life is once again in danger, but the opposite is true. Dr Cavanna and Marco are to die at the hands of Anna/Alfredo; Dr Cavanna is stabbed and Marco is virtually decapitated by the lid of a car boot. Whereas Deep Red contained a remark by Carlo that referred to the Vagina Dentata, The Stendhal Syndrome contains direct references and imagery relating to the same idea. Medusa's horrendous open mouth in the museums, the violence committed by Alfredo; he shoots his victims through the mouth at the point of orgasm and cuts Anna's lip, Anna's therapeutic paintings of huge open mouths, and the shop assistant that lasciviously licks her lips, and tells Alfredo: "I'm the oral type." Unfortunately for her, so is Alfredo.

The Stendhal Syndrome is an unusual entry into Argento's series of gialli. He uses Anna's hallucinations to fill in missing sections of the narrative; we learn about her mission to catch Alfredo through her hallucination at the hotel. Also, in a departure from the traditional array of knives and cutting implements discussed in the previous chapter, the killer uses a gun. However, even though he has strayed somewhat from the usual giallo format, Argento uses the film as a vehicle to explore the notion of gender through the figure of Anna. Although there appears to be a simple shift in the central character from male to female, there are still many gender and identity problems to be resolved.


  1. Freud, Sigmund. 'Medusa's Head', The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVIII (1920-1922). Hogarth Press. 1955. pp. 273-274.
  2. Lucas, Tim. 'The Stendhal Syndrome' [review], Video Watchdog. Number 55. January 2000. p. 19.
  3. Freud, Sigmund, op. cit., p. 274.
  4. Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine. Film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge. 1994. p. 113.
  5. Ibid., p113.
  6. Wood, Robin. 'An Introduction to the American Horror Film', Nichols, B (ed), Movies and Methods Volume II. University of California Press, Ltd. 1985. p. 212.
  7. Mulvey, Laura. 'Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema', Easthope, Antony (ed). Contemporary Film Theory. Longman Group UK Ltd. 1993. p. 112.
  8. Creed, Barbara, op. cit., p. 111.
  9. Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press. USA. 1986. p. 135.
  10. Hutchings, Peter. 'Masculinity and the Horror Film', Kirkham, P. & Thumin, J. (ed), You Tarzan. Masculinity, Movies and Men. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. 1993. p. 87.
  11. Creed, Barbara, op. cit., p. 116.
  12. Gledhill, Christine. 'Klute 1: a contemporary film noir and feminist criticism', Kaplan, E, Ann (ed), Women in Film Noir. British Film Institute. 1996. p. 18.

Paul Flanagan Winter 1999/2000