Filmmakers with style and intent go a long way with me. I’d rather a massive swing for the fences that whiffs than a safe base hit. Film is art and art is weird.
In 2013, I saw the French-language film The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, and was immediately taken by the hallucinatory, often nauseating style of Belgium-based filmmaking couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The film was a celebration of Italian giallo cinema and a follow-up to their 2009 debut Amer, which did the same thing. Now Cattet and Forzani are back with a similarly kaleidoscopic take on the spaghetti western with the sun-sizzled Let the Corpses Tan.
I’d wondered how much Cattet and Forzani would ape spaghetti western stalwarts like Leone, Corbucci, and Solima (aka, “The Three Sergios”) and largely they don’t. They established a style of cinematography and editing in their earlier giallo pastiches that remains in this movie, slightly more out of place, but consistent with their own sensibilities. In this movie we get to see what they do with a clearer narrative, more rounded characters, and a setting that’s far less malleable, owing perhaps to the movie adapting the novel Laissez bronzer les cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid. This is a sweaty, tough movie, and one that plumbs the depths of characters’ greed and desires more than simply showcasing surreal and sexy Italo-horror tropes.
The story follows a group of thieves staying in a rundown chateau in the arid mountains near the seaside somewhere. After stealing 250 kilos of gold bars, they return to the chateau, owned by the nihilistic hedonist Madame Luce (Elina Löwensohn) which she shares with various artists and ragamuffins, including an author (Marc Barbé) whose new wife arrives with her young son and friend. The thieves and the norms stay out of each other’s way until the police come poking around, leading to a day-long standoff and shootout on the grounds of the chateau, as the leader of the thieves, Rhino (Stéphane Ferrara), grows increasingly paranoid that someone from his gang is going to leave with the gold before the day ends.
The geography of the location is very clearly defined, with different groups of characters holed up in specific parts of the property, all training guns on each other, innocents mixed in among them. To coincide with its very confined geography, the movie also has a driving, almost oppressive sense of time passing, with different title screens indicating different times, sometimes multiple times in the same minute, to let you know when things are happening. This aspect allows the film to be trippier than it would otherwise be.
Another aspect I really admire is the way Cattet and Forzani depict the lust for gold: the silhouette of a woman, blasted with gold paint, forever in shadow with the sun radiating behind her head. The filmmakers’ earlier works are highly sexualized and this carries over the form of the gold woman, but it represents much more than simple titillation; it’s the inner motivation of each of the film’s main players, and shunning this desire may save their lives.
While Let the Corpses Tan is admirable for these reasons and more, it’s not a perfect enterprise. I think the film’s rapid, frenetic editing style does a disservice to all the characters, since we never get a chance to focus for very long on anyone. It’s a pace that takes some getting used to and I confess to feeling a bit ill from the speed of it early on. They also have a tendency to shoot in extreme close-up, which of course is a hallmark of spaghetti westerns, but it’s overused in the tight quarters during the stand offs. We rarely get so much as a medium shot and certainly nothing like the immense landscape shots of the genre’s greats. Again, this is Cattet and Forzani’s established style, and I appreciate their devotion to it, but it muddied the otherwise clean establishment of place.
Let the Corpses Tan had a much loftier goal than either Amer or Strange Color, which was to apply Cattet and Forzani’s surrealist, experimental sensibilities to a narrative-driven story. Largely I think they succeed, at least as proof of concept for future works. Their strength has always been in striking, unsettling visuals, and this film certainly has that. It’s a movie that might grate on those expecting a normal shoot ’em up, but if you can withstand the heat, you’ll find an oddity that’s worth its weight in stolen gold.