Let The Corpses Tan is the latest from French film makers Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. This time they set their sights on a crime thriller with spaghetti western influences. Their most coherent film so far, it’s stylish, breathtaking stuff.
The duo’s previous films, Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, were both inspired by Italian giallo thriller / horror films. In these unashamedly arty films, they took the tropes of giallo, boiled them down to their pure essence and then used them as the basic ingredients . Lighting in primary colours, old gothic houses, stylised camera positions, black-gloved killers and female victims, Goblin soundtracks, slashing steel knives: they were all there as raw ingredients. Their films were fun for fans of the genre, and were beautiful to experience. They created their own atmosphere. However, by stripping away plot, structure and character they could be self-indulgence and even a little tedious in places.
With Let the Corpses Tan they switch genres and introduce a stronger plot. The film is thrilling and stylish and this time there isn’t a tedious moment.
For the first time they have chosen to adapt a novel: “Laissez bronzer les cadavres” written in 1971 by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid.
Bernier is a middle-aged writer living a secluded sun-bleached existence in a half-ruined village on a Corsican hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean. He lives there together with a few hangers-on and with his muse Luce, a independent-minded artist with an appetite for al fresco rituals involving naked bondage, gold body paint and golden showers.
Luce, Bernier and the rest are suddenly shaken out of their alcoholic, reclusive idyll by the arrival of a trio of armed-robber acquaintances wanting to hide out and safeguard their newly-acquired haul of gold bullion. They are soon joined in the ruined village by the unexpected appearance of Bernier’s wife, son and pregnant maid, and by a pair of motorbike police clad in squeaky leather. Tensions simmer and soon it all boils over into sieges and gunfights.
The film has all the ingredients of a taut thriller with added delirious intensity and this time it draws its essence from spaghetti westerns. As with their previous films, Cattet and Forzani apply the distilled, weird and distinctive characteristics of that genre so overwhelmingly that the film is all style.
Every shot is beautiful. The remote Corsican location was chosen for its surroundings: blue sea, grey mountains and ochre stones. The strong sun, fires, matches and moonlight cast bold shadows. Reminiscent of Mario Bava, the lighting is in bold pure blues, yellows, purples, reds. In the Q&A after this screening, the directors said that every single shot was storyboarded like words in a sentence; this must have required a huge amount of planning as this film features a lot of rapid cutting.
The film opens to the blast of shotgun fire, but the audience (and Bernier) are tricked as we discover that it’s Luce shooting primary coloured paint at a canvas, one of her artworks. Guns and gunfire are a recurring motif: it’s fetishised. The initial bank robbery sequence is obsessed by the shotguns, loading them, checking, caressing, firing. Much later, there’s a remarkable sequence where one of the robbers appears to shoot the clothes off the maid to whom he clearly is sexually attracted; slowly, shot by shot, gun blasting again and again. A fantasy of sex and violence, the gun eroticised. And the sound of gunfire permeates the soundtrack.
The title sequence is fun – freeze framed, luridly coloured and soundtracked to Ennio Morricone’s score for Facia a Facia, it exudes the genre. The opening sequences were storyboarded to this music and it proved extremely difficult to secure the music rights, not least because it wasn’t clear who had ownership.
During pre-production the directors said they studied Sergio Leone’s movies in particular. However, they didn’t want to simply make their own spaghetti western and were careful to avoid cliche.
The film has something of the weirdness of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill, which itself concerns greed for a fortune in gold; that bizarre film is itself great fun and worth seeking out. The filmmakers said that Let the Corpses Tan was inspired by the more conventional spaghetti western Keoma and also by Matalo, a film I haven’t seen but I understand is particularly bizarre.
As with the previous films, the sound design is just as important – and inventive – as the visuals. The retro soundtrack is a mix of styles: spaghetti western themes of course, and also electronic, psychedelic, even giallo.
But it’s not just the soundtrack that was meticulously obsessed over. The foley sound effects are equal to the visuals. I’ve already mentioned the ubiquitous gunfire, the movie is full of stylised hyper-acute sounds: the spark of lighters, the creaking of leather gloves, the squeaky leathers that the cops wear.
The events take place over 24 hours and the concept of time is an important component. Regular on-screen captions state the time and location. At first, this device merely reinforces a sense of urgency, particularly in the initial bank robbery sequence, where they are clearly up against the clock, constantly glancing at their watches.
Time is linear for the first twenty minutes or so, but gradually things become more complex. Although the narrative is relatively straightforward, the film’s use of time gets increasingly distorted as the narrative progresses. We are shown two sequences one after the other, but that actually occurred simultaneously. Cattet and Forzani’s time games get increasingly inventive: in one audacious sequence we see each of the characters react to the sound of a single explosion, the clock resets for each individual short reaction. Later, the clock seems to plunge into reverse. Flashbacks depict relationships between characters. The film’s sense of time gets increasingly distorted and eventually seems to enter a sort of vortex. This is thrilling, and although some of the narrative details become a little confused as a result, the film remained (just about) coherent.
The directors, who seem to have a romantic as well as a working relationship, said that this film was almost never made. After The Strange Colours of Body’s Tears, they almost stopped working together, seemingly a block or fear of repetition. Eventually, they chose to adapt the source novel, which Cattet had read several years previously. This seemed to give them the challenge that they sought: a more linear narrative with substantially more dialogue than they were accustomed to (most of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from the book, apparently). They wanted to see if they could apply their own method and obsessions to something they hadn’t written. The whole process, including finding locations and filming, took around four years.
The result, in my view, is their best work yet. It will still be accused by its detractors of style over substance, and despite it’s thriller narrative it will be too experimental for many. It will probably appeal to film geeks who will savour the stylistic references to cult films, spaghetti westerns in particular. It will be a love-hate movie, but for those willing to take the plunge, it is their most thrilling and successful film yet, and one that I’m keen to experience again.