Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan is a film about sensations, derived more so from the mechanics of filmmaking than from storytelling. Like their previous works, it exists as a standalone genre film in the classic European mold, even when divorced from its stylistic trappings, with sunshine and gunfire supplanting dark corridors and unsheathed daggers. In the last ten years, the reception of Cattet and Forzani has come to understand theirs as a tactile cinema: What happens onscreen is never quite as important as how it looks and sounds—or perhaps, how it ‘feels’—while it’s happening. While Corpses is certainly exploitation cinema formally in its emulation of European westerns and gangster films, it is also exploitation cinema by design in its manipulation and abstraction of photography and sound.
As with their two previous features Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014), here the duo use genre film language not to ‘revive’ genre but as a template at once for exploring a subject often at odds with that language and for constructing a tactile experience for the viewer—the kind of experience alluded to in writings by Michel Chion and Raúl Ruiz. In Chion’s critical writing of film sound design he describes the experience of watching the earliest films at the turn of the twentieth century, which audiences would see with music and sound effects performed live in the auditorium. Despite Cattet and Forzani’s reputation as emulators of the visuals of European fantastique and genre cinema, the viewer will find that Corpses has as much or even more in common with films predicated on the exploitation of sound, such as James Sibley Watson’s formalist farce Tomatos Another Day (1930), which mocked the often redundant techniques being used in the earliest sound films of its time, or George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which exaggerated the volume of glass breaking and gunshots for dramatic effect. Corpses’ fetishization of physical objects—specifically firearms—serves as an example of Ruiz’s notion of bricolage, understood as a kind of film phenomenology proposing that the primary value of a film production resides in the performers’ use of props. Corpses is largely a collage of images of firearms, vehicles, clothing, and body parts, often filmed in extreme close-up and abstracted.
Corpses distinguishes itself from Cattet and Forzani’s previous works in how it functions as an example of the European western or crime film, despite its abstractions of image and sound. The film’s plot is largely arbitrary: A gang of thieves led by Rhino (Stéphane Ferrara) rob an armored car of a pile of gold bullion, and eventually cross paths with a bohemian couple, artist Luce (Elina Löwensohn) and author Max (Marc Barbé), at their remote, dilapidated house on the Corsican coast. The narrative source, the 1971 novel Laissez bronzer les cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, emerged from the roman noir literary tradition, and Manchette is considered one of the giants of Francophone noir together with Georges Simenon. French cinema has channeled aspects of the tradition in the crime and suspense films of Jacques Duvivier, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jean-Pierre Melville. However, Cadavres differs from most French language noir of that time in that it is largely visual in its language and behaviouriste in its description of characters—that is, Manchette defined the novel’s characters by their immediate actions and not by backstories or personal psychologies. Several characters have no name, and are referred to iconically: La Brute, L’Avocat, La Policier, and so on. As an adaptation, Cattet and Forzani’s film follows suit. The viewer’s following of the story is not important so much as the viewer’s experience of looking and listening, and Cattet and Forzani—more so than with their two previous films—provoke the viewer to look and listen at the expense of narrative. To an American audience that may not be familiar with the source material or its use of language, one might compare it to the prose style of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson: there is an impressionistic ‘rhythm’ to each scene that ultimately supersedes any narrative to which those scenes add up, rendering the actual narrative moot (when Howard Hawks filmed an adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, he would often contact Chandler for clarification on what was actually happening plot-wise in certain scenes, to which he famously replied that even he didn’t know).
Corpses is perhaps best viewed in a similar sense. Cattet and Forzani’s method thus suits their source, as theirs is a film of immediacy and of experiencing onscreen events in the moment. Yet film language is a topic unto itself for them, to such an extent that ‘style’ alone functions as a subject. While the tactile pleasures of a Cattet-Forzani film are perhaps best experienced with little knowledge of what to expect beforehand, one might better appreciate them with a primer of the duo’s working methods. Like the viewer’s experience, the filmmaking process is a largely tactile one.
At first glance, the viewer notices that the directors have taken their visual cues from diverse sources, which are not limited to the purveyors of canonical fantastique and giallo from mid-century Europe—Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and others—but include still photography, avant-garde and experimental film, and abstract expressionism. Their cinema is not homage, but uses its predecessors’ film elements as a narrative starting point: Music and images set the precedent for how a sequences develop at the scriptwriting level. Said Cattet in October 2017: “…when we are writing a script, it’s images that are coming. It’s not words, but images and sounds.” They shoot according to several months’ worth of storyboarding, with little or no improvisation or experimentation on the set. They are also shot silent, or to use Chion’s expression, ‘deaf’ (in that the characters speak words and noises occur, but they cannot be heard), with all sound developed in post-production—something of an extrapolation of the Italian practice of dubbing voices in post (Klaus Kinski, for instance, was known for not learning his lines for his Italian productions and would simply mumble nonsense during takes in the knowledge that his voice would be dubbed anyway).
For Corpses, several story elements are derived from the nouveau réalisme movement and performance art—most noticeably Niki de Saint Phalle. Luce, who is a minor character in Manchette’s novel, is reinvented by Cattet and Forzani into a lead based in part on Saint Phalle, who manipulates and mocks other characters and their actions as a type of performance and regards the events with a detached sense of humor (Forzani described the violent events in the film as the “last performance of an artist”). The film’s digressions into images of BDSM, presumably from Luce’s past, recall the environments of Piero Schivazappa’s The Laughing Woman (1969): A sequence where Luce is bound to a Saint Andrew’s cross is almost interchangeable with one in The Laughing Woman where two characters regard a mannequin bound in leather and suspended from rope. Like the characters’ remarks in that film (“…shut a woman in there, and she’d go mad and die within hours. I haven’t tried it, but it should be quite a test of endurance. You won’t be able to make the slightest movement.”), the digressions in Corpses can function almost as an abstraction of bodily restraint and denial of corporeal agency, indirectly being about whatever erotic components may be found in physical violence.
Both sequences serve as abstractions of certain aspects of Saint Phalle’s artistic legacy. One can interpret them as an allusion to various works by her hand, given that she was the victim of sexual violence. One finds the greatest instance of this—as it pertains to Corpses—in Saint Phalle’s art performances from the 1960s, where she would fire a gun at her canvases. Said the artist in 1993: “I was raped by my father when I was 11, so perhaps it’s no wonder I started shooting my paintings.” Luce fires guns at her paintings in the opening of Corpses, which is a direct reference to Saint Phalle herself. Just as weapons are sexualized by Rhino and his gang, for Luce inanimate objects such as pistols and cigarillos function as weaponized sex organs. The opening sequence concludes with extreme closeups of tobacco embers penetrating her canvas and a ‘dolly’ through its bullet holes. This is a converse parallel to Saint Phalle’s designs of the vagina dentata in The Laughing Woman, which in that film literally consumes and digests a male figure before spitting his skull out onto the floor. If there is any ‘thematic’ string to distill from Cattet and Forzani’s oeuvre it is sublimation of sexual trauma and sexual insecurities through physical violence, be it with firearms in Corpses or stabbing weapons of Amer and Strange Color. It would be a mistake to not read such a conflation of sex and violence as a critique of sorts on the coded images of film violence at large.
The Cattet-Forzani film experience is an intimate one of closeups—faces, skin, lips, amplified breathing, surfaces rubbing and scratching together. Countless articles and reviews describe their films as ‘sensual,’ ‘sensory,’ and ‘sexual.’ Their mise en scène works in a manner that has more in common with a sexual partner, message therapist, or ASLR recording than with a conventional feature film in that certain visual and aural ‘nerve endings’ are stimulated that under most viewing circumstances wouldn’t be. This is in step with the ‘amodern’ tendencies of giallo and exploitation films from mid-century Europe. An example from Corpses—both the novel and film—would be their depiction of weapons. Manchette’s prose is at times fetishistic in its description of firearms and their use. At the same time, giallo, though set in the present day, has little regard for modernity since knives and daggers—and not firearms—form part of the genre’s iconography. Corpses combines the amodern sensibility of giallo with Manchette’s prose: Though it is set ostensibly in the present day, the characters use World War II-era firearms. Such weapons are a reflection of the film’s amodern, rural setting at large, which superficially resemble those of mid-century European films that would combine genre elements, both contemporary (action, gangster, et cetera) and period (western).
Corpses is tactile cinema as an audience experience in that the photography and sound design suggest that the viewer could perhaps touch, smell, or taste onscreen events. They extend tactile elements—particularly sound—to such an extent that it can function as a deconstruction, with individual sounds supplanting each other. Just as Chion describes the use of images in silent films to suggest sound (such as barrel fire and smoke to imply a gun being fired in Porter’s The Great Train Robbery), Cattet and Forzani will often portray the inverse—as with a scene in Corpses where the sound of glass breaking is heard when a character closes his eyes—or use sound as a stream of signification: A cigar’s embers are interchangeable with a frying egg, an industrial boiler stands in for the sound of a fire pit, a series of gunshots is mixed with a man’s breathing. The latter half of Corpses—which takes place at night—often provides the viewer with only brief impressions of bodies and objects onscreen, and thus the viewer must rely on aural rather than visual stimuli. It is through the deprivation of one sense that the directors provoke the viewer to focus on using another. These scenes recall the methods used by Philippe Grandrieux in Sombre (1998), a film that takes place in near-total darkness, leaving the viewer to rely on the aural sensations of breathing, physical struggle, rustling, and the like in order to follow the ‘onscreen’ action. Cattet and Forzani also share a creative process with Grandrieux in that visual elements emerge in part from music. Just as the former will use a piece by Ennio Morricone or Stelvio Cipriani as a ‘starting point’ for developing the film image, the former developed sequences in A Lake (2008) based on sound. Said Grandrieux in 2015: “For me most of the images are coming from the sound, the sound brings me to the images. For A Lake, for instance, when I was in the forest, when I heard all the noises of the snow, and the wind, the avalanche…” It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Luce and Max are played by Elina Löwensohn and Marc Barbé, who both appeared in Sombre.
Certain visual elements in Corpses will collapse notions of cinematic and ‘painterly,’ many of which emerge from the characters’ ‘activation’—to use Ruiz’s term—of weapons. Gun violence becomes a variation of ‘action’ painting. Consider a scene where La Brute (played by the musician Bernie Bonvoisin) is cornered and ambushed while trying to abscond with the stolen gold. The film stages the shootout against a field of solid white, the bullets causing the gold bars to disintegrate as if made from syrup, splattering across his face and torso. Scenes such as this one distinguish Corpses as more than simple ‘homage,’ alluding to nouveau réaliste painters Yves Klein and Arman, and even post-World War II expressionists such as Norman Bluhm or Sam Francis.
Just as those artists believed that the working process had greater meaning than the end result, the filmmaking mechanics of Let the Corpses Tan remain, arguably, more important than the film itself, as it insists that the viewer experience sensual environments in the moment in lieu following a story from start to finish. It occupies the noir and western genres in the same manner has The Big Sleep or John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), respectively: A film that abides by genre conventions but is more concerned with instants, surfaces, and sensations.