A ghostly nude female silhouette pees on the face of a man buried up to his neck in dirt midway through Let the Corpses Tan—and somehow, that’s not the craziest part of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s third feature, in theaters August 31.
Like their prior Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the married Franco-Belgian duo likes to boil genre fictions down to the bone, creating stews of lurid iconography, archetypal plot conventions, and wild passions. They make self-conscious violent-erotic cine-homages, all bold colors, bolder violence, and bold-beyond-reason editorial structures in which shots—sometimes in harmony, sometimes willfully mismatched—leap and lurch about the screen with eye-searing abandon. Energized by borrowed bits of pre-existing musical scores, they’re explosions of sound, color and arterial—and other bodily—sprays that aim to batter and mesmerize.
And their latest is their finest—and most accessible—to date.
It should be said that “accessible” is a relative term here, given that Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears were both meta giallos (i.e. a particular strain of Italian murder-mystery-slasher-thriller) that cared about traditional narrative satisfactions about as much as Donald Trump cares for the truth. For Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani set aside their Dario Argento fandom in favor of Sergio Leone-esque Western fetishism, via an adaptation of a 1971 novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid. Their story concerns a gang of armed robbers who find themselves in a standoff against a pair of police officers in a retreat located high in the cliffside hills of a remote island. What ensues is a head-spinning barrage of treachery, nastiness and hallucinatory bedlam, albeit one with a more traditional premise than Cattet and Forzani have previously employed (if nothing else, Let the Corpses Tan boasts a cohesive skeleton onto which the directors graft all sorts of vivid insanity).
As before, Cattet and Forzani prove expert purveyors of sexualized symbolic imagery, and their film’s psychosexual energy erupts from every intense close-up of eyes, mouths, facial stubble, gloved hands, rope-squeezed flesh, and spurting wounds. Their compositions are maniacally meticulous, as is their overarching formal arrangement, which involves repeatedly breaking up the breakneck action with title cards informing one of the current time. That device quickly becomes a running gag, which is in keeping with so much of what the filmmakers are up to in Let the Corpses Tan: zealously over-highlighting (and italicizing, and underlining, and bolding) familiar Western and crime-fiction tropes as a means of not only identifying them, but playfully accentuating why storytellers (and audiences) continue to love them.
Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking Let the Corpses Tan is just an intellectualized experiment. While there’s clearly a method to Cattet and Forzani’s madness, their stunts are driven by lustful passion for genre cinema. Take, for example, their masterfully wacko soundscapes. Mixing old-school scores (including by their favorite, Ennio Morricone) with reverb-heavy effects—so that every scrape of a blade, blast of a gun, or footstep in the sand resounds with echo-y thunder—they create swirling sonic atmospheres of noises borrowed, bruised and bonkers, all of it apt to swing this way and that at a moment’s notice. It’s an immersive auditory descent into spaghetti-Western chaos.
As for the tale’s particulars, the film focuses on a trio of bandits—led by gruff Rhino (Stephane Ferrara)—who don Frankenstein masks to rob an armored car of its gold bar cargo. Afterwards, they retreat with their booty to their hideout, which is a series of gone-to-ruin buildings in the arid hills of an unnamed stretch of ocean-bound land. That locale is home to modernist painter (and notorious crazy lady) Luce (Elina Löwensohn) and her lawyer (Michelangelo Marchese), as well as an artist named Max Bernier (Marc Barbé) who resides in a nearby church. Soon, this motley crew is joined by Max’s wife Melanie (Dorylia Calmel), their young son (Bamba Forzani Ndiaye), and the boy’s maid Pia (Marine Sainsily)—and, more troublesome still, two cops (Herve Sogne, Dominique Troyes) whose arrival initiates a bloody game of cat-and-mouse.
Detailing these individuals’ shifting allegiances, and attempts to escape with the gold, Let the Corpses Tan delivers scene after scene of startling sights, much of it familiar to fans of Cattet and Forzani: dark holes and orifices into which the camera plunges; orgasmic suffering embellished with heavy breathing; ants and insects scampering across naked skin; surreal overexposed color-filtered montages; mystical jewelry; and shards of broken glass that provide fractured reflections of tortured faces. Unlike in their previous, oft-silent offerings, Cattet and Forzani utilize considerable dialogue throughout. Nonetheless, that doesn’t diminish the oblique deliriousness of their motif-overload approach, which has a gonzo verve that can be overwhelming, if not a bit taxing, especially if you’re not already acclimated to their style.
Again collaborating with cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, Cattet and Forzani capture the sunburnt beauty of their rocky milieu, which is set against glistening aquamarine water and is illuminated by a blooming-into-oblivion sun that’s often situated directly behind standing men and women, the better to transform them into shadowy specters. Let the Corpses Tan exploits the interplay of extreme light and dark to convey a sense of unholy menace and mystery. That’s most strongly felt in the character of Luce, who in mesmerizing flashbacks (such as the aforementioned urine showstopper) is cast as a faceless embodiment of demonic callousness and cruelty—which, in turn, is vilified by the men who both punish her, and are nourished by her pain and suffering.
That last part is dramatized in a sequence of borderline-blasphemous lunacy, and continues the directors’ fascination with comingling sex and violence (on an annihilation-grade scale) in seductive female figures. Awash in protruding and penetrating gun barrels, coated in exploding and gushing glitter, and rooted in ideas about revenge, betrayal, and carnal desire, Let the Corpses Tan is an orgiastic celebration of deviant impulses and actions. It’s perverse and putrid, titillating and terrifying—isolating everything that’s unforgettable and irresistible about traditional heist and gunslinger material so it can then splash and smear it in one’s face with sensationalistic avant-garde glee.