Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani may be French, but they bleed Italian cinema. These two are responsible for the kaleidoscopic horrors in 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears and 2009’s Amer. Both films drew heavily from the works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, combining intrigue, surrealism and mesmerizing imagery with plots that are merely narrow highways right into evocative Freudian nightmares.
Now the duo has returned with Let the Corpses Tan, constructing a stunning — even awe-inspiring — tale of double-crossing and unrepentant human casualty by employing the filmmaking methods of spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone, along with, of course, the lurid, exploitative, blood-and-dagger imagery of classic Italian giallo films. The story follows a gang of misfit criminals escaping to a hideout carved into the rocky Italian cliffside, where an eccentric, society-hating artist, Luce (Elina Löwensohn), and her guests sunbathe and make bullet-ridden art. Don’t pay too much attention to the plot. Just know that there’s a cache of gold bricks in a car, a cop who has stumbled on the hideout, an arsenal of weapons and only one way in or out of the compound.
Cattet and Forzani play with a fractured timeline. Most of the story takes place within a tense 24-hour shootout among the ruins in the hills. Characters are split up into different bunkers and lookouts, and the story will often rewind itself to examine the same scene from a different character’s point of view. This method also allows viewers to gain a surety of space — the ruins are almost labyrinthine. Great credit must be given to locations managers Jean-Christophe Meneec and Stefane Tatibouet (or whoever found this magical cliffside spot), as it’s fitting that this story of endless death and greed play out in what seems to be the remnants of an ancient Catholic church destroyed by neglect and time. That’s also very Italian.
Traditional gialli and spaghetti Westerns boast something like double the number of camera shots of most movies, as the genres demand quick cuts and extreme close-ups for a barrage of reaction moments. Here, the camera will in one moment push in like a gunshot for an ultra-close-up of Luce’s shifty eyes before swing-panning out to a glaringly bright ecru wide shot of the coast’s rocky expanse. Then it pushes in again on an object of interest, like a goat carcass swinging from a hook in the kitchen — Cattet and Forzani would prefer you not get too comfortable. One reason why those old gialli and spaghetti Westerns were allowed to develop this aesthetic is because Italian cinema had created a sophisticated system of dubbing films. They could shoot more quickly because no one was worrying about vocal performances, wind or unwanted ambient noise — they could record it all back in the studio. Corpses mixes the ambient with some pretty unnerving pinpointed foley sound. Every rocking-chair squeak or eyelid closing comes to life in frightening detail.
But what matters most is that imagery, which is seriously made without taking itself too seriously. Think the psychedelic ascendency of early Alejandro Jodorowsky, films that, through an overt focus on primal elements, become both cosmic and comic. In Corpses, we see this in “dream” sequences: A beautiful naked woman stands in silhouette, the gleaming sun behind her back, while Christophe’s Western-inflected pop anthem “Sunny Road to Salina” plays. The woman acts essentially as a goddess, her scenes intermittently breaking up the action of the main story. She interacts with four faceless men also in silhouette. At times, she is urinating on them; at others, they are lassoing her with ropes, squeezing what appears to be champagne out from her nipples. I swear to goddess this all makes sense in the story, that it’s art with a capital “A,” but it’s also quite funny. These directors excel at poking fun at the intermingling of sex and violence in cinema, taking it to its most logical illogical conclusion, as in a scene where a woman imagines bullets shooting off pieces of her dress until she stands naked and aroused. We’re certainly not supposed to take that seriously.
Even the carnage here is inspired. When one of the criminals attempts to make off with the gold bricks weighing down the trunk of the getaway car, we’re seemingly transported to a surreal landscape of pitch-black nothingness. We know the man’s body is being riddled with bullets because of the sound of incessant gunshots, but Cattet and Forzani present the scene as him being painted in iridescent gold as globules of the precious metal pour down around him. More times than I could count I had no idea what the hell was happening, and also just didn’t care that I didn’t know. Let the Corpses Tan is that strange and beautiful.