I received my crash-course intro to the work of Belgian filmmakers Hèléne Cattet and Bruno Forzani way back in 2010, when Amer, their feature debut, played the Seattle International Film Festival.
The movie galvanized the small crowd of critics clustered in the Pacific Place theater for the press preview. A lot of them hated it, deriding it as an exercise of style over substance. Me, I was captivated.
The haters missed one key point. Cattet/Forzani films are indeed exercises in style, but it’s not style-over-substance. In the pocket universe created by this filmmaking couple, the style is the substance.
Cattet and Forzani craft elevated genre flicks that take formula pulp cinema, then twist it around like kaleidoscopic taffy. Their outrageously colorful and utterly arresting visual style is not meant to drive forward a linear narrative. It is a cinema of pure sensory exploration and indulgence; precision-engineered yet passionately crafted, designed to stimulate the senses and to evoke emotion on a near-subconscious level.
For Amer and The Strange Colour of your Body’s Tears (their 2013 followup), Cattet and Forzani homaged that hotbed of fevered sexuality, artfully bloody violence, and outrageous visual dazzle known as Italian Giallo cinema. In the process, the duo pulled off a redefinition of the Giallo that’s spiritually akin to Quentin Tarantino’s redefinition of war movies with Inglourious Basterds–genre cinema that morphs formula tropes into its own repurposed, joyously anarchic art form.
Let the Corpses Tan finds the directorial pair casting their genre net in a slightly different direction while still playing to their strengths. This time, the launch points are spaghetti westerns and the hyper-violent, gritty Italian crime dramas that flourished throughout Europe in the 1960s and ’70s (they’re known as Poliziotteschi, if you’re interested in diving down that particular rabbit hole).
The script, adapted from an influential pulp novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, serves up a time-tested crime-movie setup. A trio of career criminals steal a huge crate of gold bricks and are forced to retreat to an abandoned, unnamed Mediterranean village inhabited by cynical, charismatic artist Luce (Elina Löwensohn). A small group of innocent bystanders wind up joining Luce and her compatriots in the crossfire as two cops (Hervé Sogne and Dominique Troyes) stumble into the scene.
Corpses does sport a few markers of linearity throughout. Stark red-on-black time stamps ostensibly mark the sequence of events. A great retro soundtrack (largely cherry-picked from vintage Ennio Morricone) further adds to the bleached, delirious atmosphere. There are plenty of wonderfully-executed shootouts and vehicle chases woven into the film, and the colorful cast of characters is more defined than those that inhabit other Cattet/Forzani films.
But even those touchstones are played with and subverted in fever-dream fashion. The time stamps allow the directors to rewind situations many times over, with the exact same moment playing out from several characters’ viewpoints a la Rashomon. Cattet and Forzani have also populated Corpses with a bunch of wonderfully distinctive actors blessed with fascinating, flawed features, but the directors are more interested in representing their characters’ moods with vivid visual brushstrokes than with forward-momentum exposition and character development.
Cattet, Forzani, and cinematographer Manuel Dacosse explore the landscape, the sun-blasted village ruins, inanimate objects, and the actors’ faces and bodies with fetishistic fervor. Surreal, symbolic visual tangents assert themselves into the action, jolting audience perception with the abruptness of involuntary acid flashbacks. The great sound mix also turns simple noises like the cocking of a pistol, or the dry creak of a police officer’s leather jacket, into vivid sensory cues in their own right.
There’s plenty of gunplay and blood, but characters don’t just get shot to death in this movie: Some of their demises are represented by bullets gliding through viscous oceans of gold liquid that kick up glitter in slow motion just before characters breathe their last. The impressionistic edits, and the vivid visual sense, summon forth Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Mario Bava, all with a splash of pop-art surrealism.
It’s the kind of pure visual cinema that’ll either mesmerize or exasperate you, depending on your mood. And admittedly, there are points where the relentless energy and style-to-burn are damn near exhausting. But at its best (which is a good 90% of its run time, by my count), Let the Corpses Tan is exhilarating–the sight and sound of two filmmakers pushing genre cinema into a brave, eye-popping new world. Turn off your practical mind, open your eyes and ears, strap yourself in, and drink deep.