By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara and Bernie Bonvoison
Written and directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
LET THE CORPSES TAN opens with a series of tight shots: A volley of gunfire. A man scrambling wildly across uneven, sunbaked Mediterranean ruins. A cigarillo in a woman’s mouth sucked to ash with a sneering panache that dares its recipient to locate the line dividing true menace from the erotic.
We, as the audience, are invited to fall into our usual, comfortable assumptions about predator and prey for a couple of tense minutes. When the camera pulls back, however, we realize nothing is as it appears: The man is running to, not from, the gunfire. The bullets are directed at a painted canvas, not the man. And the woman’s subversive tendencies go far deeper than smoking or attempted murder. “Too symmetrical,” she complains as the camera provides a voyeuristic behind-the-canvas perspective—smoker, shooter and runner each lining up perfectly with a bullet hole.
Too symmetrical. It’s a warning LET THE CORPSES TAN directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani deliver on in virtually every element of their iconoclastic approach to cinema—philosophical, aesthetic, narrative—to increasingly stunning effect. Which is to say, in the wake of their well-received 2009 feature debut—the top-notch giallo homage AMER—the Belgian filmmakers confirmed themselves as master synthesizers of cult and classic cinema via the tour de force beguiling surrealism of 2013’s THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, a deft fusing of Hitchcock, Lynch and Jeunet/Caro pillars onto a sturdy Argento foundation.
No fan of those two films—or, indeed, of avant-garde cinema writ large—would have complained if the pair had simply chosen to go back down that same rabbit hole, albeit festooned with a new detour or three. Admirably, the pair has chosen instead to return to the laboratory, returning with LET THE CORPSES TAN, a film that channels the light of that same visionary prowess through a completely different prism: A breathtaking and enlivening adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s 1971 novel LAISSEZ BRONZER LES CADAVRES that transports Argento/Bava worship to a plot and landscape that are equal parts Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, MAGNUM FORCE, EL TOPO, Andres Serrano and ’60s variety-show psychedelics.
Luce (Elina Löwensohn) serves as de facto leader of a remote art commune/cult, appearing satisfied to create both her aforementioned art and tension amongst the residents, particularly two male devotees (Marc Barbe, Michelangelo Marchese)—that is, until a gang of cop-killing, gold-bar-toting thieves arrive, with the authorities hot on their trail. Luce at first embraces this development less as the existential threat it is than a fearsome-yet-titillating development. Alas, many pipers line up to be paid in many different currencies, the detailing of which would be grossly irresponsible to potential viewers.
Suffice it to say, the ensuing clashes of archetypes, explosions of hyperstylized violence, twists, turns and shocks are largely less fugue-like than AMER or STRANGE COLOR. In many ways, they serve only to heighten the sudden fusillades of reality-refracting, hallucinatory imagery and glimpses of the weird divine. LET THE CORPSES TAN is a strange and wondrous cinematic smorgasbord for those who prefer their cinematic smorgasbords strange and wondrous. You freaks already know who you are—and this is yet another love letter from Cattet and Forzani directly to you.
RUE MORGUE’s Michael Gingold will moderate a Q&A with filmmakers Cattet and Forzani at the 7:20 p.m. show of LET THE CORPSES TAN tomorrow night at New York City’s Quad Cinema. Go here for more details.