“I know it when I see it.” Like film noir, the giallo is one of those genres as easy to pin down as it is difficult to define. More often than not, what constitutes a giallo rests on a given film’s balance of emblematic imagery and an archetypal storyline, while other factors like tone, score, and setting will also play a part in its classification. Arguably no filmmaker has had a more stylish and deftly rigorous hand in establishing these defining traits than Dario Argento. And his 1975 film, Deep Red (Profondo Rosso), is perhaps as good as it gets, hitting all the right notes and setting the standard for the genre’s essential qualities. But where does a filmmaker go from there? At its worst, blatant, inadequate imitation is sure to follow. At its best, similar movies succeed on the basis of narrative variation and the incorporation of new aesthetic components.
Enter Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. After several giallo-inspired shorts, this directorial duo released their erotically charged genre rendition Amer in 2009. That film, however, scarcely approaches the intensely feverish variation that is The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. With probing eyeball close-ups, hands enveloped in black leather gloves, glistening knives, and an unsettling integration of recurrently vexing props, the tropes are all here. Yet there is also more—and less—to this 2013 giallo reworking. What Argento defined and perfected, Cattet and Forzani subvert, forgo, and expand, enhancing the canvas of the genre and making it that much harder to characterize.
Written by Argento and frequent Fellini scribe Bernardino Zapponi (Satyricon, The Clowns, Roma, Casanova, City of Women), Deep Red is itself, first and foremost, steeped in the giallo’s customary iconography, amplified by its customary aural cues. From the enigmatic opening, with stabbing shadows on the wall, an ominously bloodied blade, and the unnerving resonance of a sing-songy lullaby, the film transfixes in a concentrated arrangement rarely relieved. Argento introduces telepathic Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), who is giving a lecture on parapsychology until what began as a demonstrative parlor trick turns into a premonition of panic. “Get it out,” she screams. “I feel death … a perverse mind.” Someone in the audience has killed, she says, and will kill again. Her intuition proves fatally accurate and she is soon murdered, her death witnessed by musician Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), who is loitering on the street with drunken friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). This sets Marcus off on an investigative odyssey, with steadily disclosed plot points and analytical prompts from Ulmann’s scientific associates. A book titled “House of the Screaming Child” leads Marcus to a strange villa concealing hidden walls, haunting pictures, and, ultimately, a key to the ever-expanding series of murders.
While movies that deal with the inexplicable can usually get by with no immediate explanation, part of the joy of a giallo, even if it incorporates the uncanny, is the mystery of the whole ordeal. The dispersal of tell-tale particulars typically give rise to revelatory indications of who is perpetrating the crime, and sometimes why. Fittingly, then, Deep Red has a proliferation of recurring images: toys, violent drawings, a brutalized yarn doll, and repeated hanging motifs. These are everyday items, but they are perverted and twisted; they are triggering clues to the psychology of the concealed killer. Upon entering Ulmann’s apartment, Marcus thought he saw a painting that is now missing. Is there something in its disappearance? What did it depict? The film’s various characters likewise rouse continual suspicion. Like Marcus, the viewer is on guard, observationally primed, examining who has been present during a murder, who is accounted for, and who is nowhere to be found. What about Carlo, for example, who never seems to be home when Marcus calls? It also turns out Carlo is gay, and has been leading a tormented private life. What other secrets might he have? What about the daughter of the villa’s caretaker? This young girl licks her lips when her father slaps her face, scolding her for pinning down live lizards. Surely, she is too young to be the killer, but maybe there is something to be gleaned by the notion of corrupted innocence. Like in many of Argento’s films, Deep Red causes one to study a character’s behavior, judging the angle and proximity proffered by Argento, gauging the composition and duration of their reaction shots, reading their facial expressions for that one illuminating response.
Argento says he uses the camera to “present the facts,” but he also revels in deceit. Certain visions may not mean what they seem, while others only attain relevance upon a second or third consideration (see, for instance, the way Marcus lingers on that painting). With their grounding in the yellow-covered crime novels for which they receive their name, the giallo’s construction invites interpretation and analysis; there is indeed a satisfaction in the solving. That said, however, though it is littered with an onslaught of potential signifiers, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears generally eschews this tradition. After its protagonist, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange), arrives home to find his wife missing and their apartment locked from the inside, his investigation is almost instantly thwarted by a series of incidents and character introductions that are rarely, if ever, explained or fully contextualized within the story. One learns without further clarification that neighbors have complained in the past about Dan’s behavior, so there is the subtle hint of prior misdeeds. There is a portentous recording that contains his wife’s voice. A bearded man is frequently seen, and it is suggested he is somehow menacing Dan’s plight. There is a revealing diary, there are walls behind walls, and buried passageways throughout the building. There is a lady in red, there are familiar faces and recurrent items of clothing. But what does it all add up to?
Unlike Deep Red, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears casts doubt and offers up clues without a satisfactorily resolved conclusion, or even a sustained semblance of straight chronology. This looks and sounds like a giallo, but it does not unfold like a giallo. While portions of the film briefly settle down, as when an inspector shows up and Dan’s dilemma is given some due elucidation, Cattet and Forzani diffuse conventional storytelling devices in favor of a fitful audio-visual showcase. Beginning with its kaleidoscopic title credits, the film obstructs clear observation with a colorful salvo of sights and sounds. It deviates from its ostensible mystery, or at least any hope of resolving its mystery, to enter into a dizzying, dazzling vision fueled by Dan’s delirium. Yet that would presume the erratic imagery is subjective, that it is derived from Dan’s mental condition. And that is by no means a certainty. In fact, such a discrepancy only enhances the film’s expressive distance. Never knowing where we are at in terms of reality versus fantasy, dream, or illusion keeps the viewer actively at bay, as a curious if largely uninvolved observer. There is pleasure in the watching—this is an undeniably gorgeous film—but it doesn’t take long for the pictorial incongruities and narrative puzzles to rebuff the potential for complete comprehension. Answers become resolutely secondary for what is a film far more devoted to stylistic excess.
In that regard, Cattet and Forzani certainly impress, so much so that The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is admirable and worthwhile for its formal bravura alone. A bombastic mosaic, the film at times resembles a work of avant-garde surrealism, a jolting David Lynchian whodunit by way of Luis Buñuel or Kenneth Anger. Through editing devices like rapid cutting and split-screens, and through intentionally masked compositions, the film dices up the scenery and cuts off it characters, employing multiple mirrors and other reflective surfaces to promote schizophrenic ambiguity. With cinematography by Manuel Dacosse, the picture is a mélange of sumptuous color, light, varying speeds, stop motion movements, and black and white photography, all of which reverberates with hyper-sensitive sounds effects and a score of psychedelic giallo samplings.
Though considerably more grounded and comparatively more controlled, Deep Red is itself by no means short on style, and as much as any of Argento’s early work, it has its own brand of hyperreality. His mixing of Goblin’s music, their evocative strains serving as aural indications of imminent bloodshed, combine with Luigi Kuveiller’s intoxicating cinematography to create an indelible ambiance synonymous with the giallo at the peak of its form. Argento’s fluid camera movements linger surreptitiously on characters as they silently move amongst their otherwise compressed surroundings. He expertly adopts both the killer’s point of view—seeing only a disembodied pair of hands (actually Argento’s) as they go in for the kill—and also detaches the camera from an individual association as it moves independently away from a character, taking on an inquisitive life of its own and providing a unique spectator awareness that amplifies the suspense of seeing what the protagonists do not. As such a leading work in the genre, Deep Red similarly exudes an exemplary sense of deliberate pacing, creating a far more methodical atmospheric unease than The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears’ blazing bombardment. In combination with its single images of fright (a walking, squawking automaton is particularly disconcerting), Argento masterfully crafts what Zapponi calls an “evil discomfort.”
It is to be expected that both Deep Red and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears would serve up the inevitable violence. In the case of the former, the visceral sensations were purposely based in reality. According to Zapponi, he and Argento specifically sought out methods of murder that viewers could relate to, such as getting slammed against the corner of furniture, or getting scalded by hot water. In The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, by comparison, even the violence is extreme and exaggerated, either via accelerated montage (a blade slashing in a brutal barrage that makes the shower scene in Psycho look like slow motion) or in its graphic arrangements (a woman’s bare breasts scraping against Dan’s chest, covered with shattered glass). Another key difference between these two films rests in their respective capacities for levity in the face of this violence. While falling into the horror/thriller vein, Deep Red is also one of Argento’s most comical early features, and much of this comes down to the performance of his muse and lover, Daria Nicolodi, who plays Gianna, a spunky, intrepid reporter and basically Marcus’s sole ally (a fundamentally irrelevant detective also pops in and out of the picture from time to time). Teasing, flirting, even engaging in some slapstick comedy courtesy of her dilapidated car, the two are delightfully bantering collaborators. Next to this, In The Strange Coloru of Your Body’s Tears appears markedly humorless.
While Deep Red was a meticulous culmination of what Argento had been honing since 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, it was also, in many ways, a grand climax before his films took a supernatural turn with the likes of Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Though he would return to the giallo not long after, with Tenebre (1982), the genre by that point had moved on, forced to evolve after the deluge of less adventurous slasher pictures throughout the 1980s. Decades later, as a hallucinogenic sign of things to come, or merely as a resoundingly flamboyant one-off, an arty homage seen through a stained glass prism, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears emerges as the best example of where the giallo stands today.