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Genre at Terminal Velocity: The Films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

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Originality may be dead, but that doesn’t mean cinema is. If there’s any hope that cinema may never die, may never lose its sheen, may never fail to surprise us every once in a while — even if it’s not quite as often as it used to — it is with films like those by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Tinged with visual familiarity, films like Amer, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps) and Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) constitute a filmography that in itself reflects a lifetime of cinematic discovery. The duo’s resume is a fully deconstructed history of film, featuring cuts, pans, dissolves and close-ups in rapid-fire combinations; a collective thesis that movies exist in endless forms and every re-arrangement gives the possibility of tapping into a new reaction from audiences.

Cattet and Forzani wear their biggest Giallo and Spaghetti Westerns influences on their sleeves. They wield the camera as a knife, piercing through the soul of genre. Their editing rips through a jungle in a giant whirlwind with trees ripping and foliage flying, like Taz from Looney Tunes.

Editing is imperative to building suspense in Cattet and Forzani’s films. While horror cinema, including Giallo, traditionally builds its suspense from tracking shots, ultimately switching to sharp cuts to augment the scary reveal, Amer — the filmmakers’ delirious and mysterious feature debut — uses the erratic cutting itself as the tension-builder. The surroundings of Ana, a young girl growing up in a house that’s seemingly haunted, are provided in bits and pieces out of continuity, detached things that consistently feel like they are coming apart at the seams. From close ups of Ana’s eyes to shots of arm hair raising, from wind blowing and doorknob rattling to a shadow with radioactive green light, viewers are assaulted with a color wheel of rapid-fire montages that deftly remind of the presence of time within the film.

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In the past few years, there’s been a wave of nostalgic filmmaking meant to transport and remind viewers of the art’s past touchstones, but on its own, this is a superficial endeavor. The importance of older influential cinema should be the canvas it provides from which future filmmakers may build on. Inspiration tip-toes the lines between homage and mimicry, and too much of it falls on the latter side. For the former, one must understand the original utilization of a cut or pan and have the knack of recreating it in a new context. This is where thriller filmmakers like Peter Strickland, Ben Wheatley, Jennifer Kent and Cattet/Forzani succeed in building a nest for themselves, inspired by their predecessors.

With Cattet and Forzani’s second film, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, the filmmakers implement the colors and textures of Mario Bava and Dario Argento and dismember them with a healthy dose of Godardian jump-cuts to create a film that is unnerving to the eyes and ears. The film’s plot is incomprehensible beyond the premise of a man searching for his missing wife inside a house that seems to be alive. Its similarities to Amer are in the Giallo traditions and the duo’s own patented stylistic flourishes, but with The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, there is a new language that is formed with pieces left behind from the past decades. A lot of the film’s horror is draped in fetishistic/violent sexual imagery and sound, featuring leather, ropes, knives and a skin-crawling soundscape of metal slicing, flesh peeling/stretching and bones cracking.

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However, the violence is never gratuitous in The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. It is always conscious, self-reflexive and painted in an artistic, meticulously curated fashion, the way a designer would decide the order and manner their dresses would be presented down a runway. Giallo is generally considered to be “beautiful horror” given its grotesquerie as a juxtaposition of horrific violence amid ethereal settings. The dichotomy is a conundrum for viewers’ eyes and minds which become hypnotized by beauty and then assaulted by blood and guts. Cattet and Forzani are never not grotesque without being tongue-in-cheek, stretching the idea of a “haunted house” to absurd stylistic lengths, placing the camera under the floorboards, between the tiles and walls, allowing the audience to experience the house’s sentience and observation — a literal house-eye-view.

It’s the unapologetic embrace of genre, in its purest and most foundational senses, that makes Cattet and Forzani’s films so refreshing. In recent times, genre cinema, especially horror, has been at odds with itself, with with everything being geared towards subtlety. Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and Ari Aster’s Midsommar imply horror but claim something more. That’s not necessarily a bad approach, but such films have a tendency to contend, with noses upturned, that genre filmmaking has previously lacked nuance and shrewdness.

Cattet and Forzani have revved the engines in the opposite direction. Their most comprehensive work, Let the Corpses Tan, shifts focus from Giallo influences to Sergio Leone’s films. Once again, the scissor-happy editing deconstructs ideas of the Spaghetti Western to absurd lengths. Every conversation is staged like a high-noon standoff, with the camera darting between the slightest movements of a person’s eyes (averting, opening, closing), hands (on a gun, clutching a knife, caressing a woman) and feet (planted apart, together or limp and lifeless). It’s a brilliant way to elicit all the emotions of a Western from just its bare-bones ingredients.

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In Let the Corpses Tan, the story must once again be pieced together from tethered bits, but it’s Cattet and Forzani’s most multi-faceted film, not relying solely on atmospherics. For the first time, viewers get a real sense of the characters. The genre necessitates this. While Giallo is more concerned with the external states of character surroundings, Spaghetti Westerns have first and foremost been about character history. Set in Corsica, Let the Corpses Tan sets the stage of different parties through montages of the featured individuals’ earlier lives, showing everything that was valuable to them before earning money. This string, plus a literal ticking timer which intercuts sequences with a superimposition of a running clock, creates the sensation that greater things — love, family, a better life — are at stake, even if they are never explicitly stated.

What allows Cattet and Forzani’s films to flourish is that they modify cinematic influences to accommodate today’s instant gratification culture. The duo’s productions are an endless race of whizzing images and ideas, appearing and disappearing faster before one can really process them. When viewers gets the hang of it, it becomes an exhilarating flow. Everything is inspired. Everything is in excess. By the end, exhaustion sets in; Cattet and Forzani show exactly what acceleration of media can do. It’s a dangerous game to play because audiences can easily become bored. This is probably why Cattet and Forzani only make a movie every four years. The wait is certainly worth the payoff.

Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.

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Soham Gadre

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