Pastiche nudged into madness, Let the Corpses Tan is a Sergio Leone film on psychoactive substances and the third feature-length outing for Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who specialise in this sort of weird pastiche/homage.
Their 2009 feature debut, Amer, baked Lynch, Kubrick, Svankmajer and Argento into a kaleidoscopic revisit to the Euro soft porn/arthouse crossover of the 1970s. Their The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears was an onslaught of stylishness in a dream-infused slasher movie ripe as a liquid Camembert. In between they also did the O Is for Orgasm segment of The ABCs of Death compendium movie, a sado-masochism-inflected view of sexual congress that was all leather, taut stomach and cigarette ends.
Perhaps deliberately, perhaps accidentally, Let the Corpses Tan finds Cattet and Forzani in more of a storytelling mood than usual. By which I mean we almost know what’s going on in this movie, which is set up in the rugged hills of Sardinia, where a gang who have committed a gold bullion heist fetch up at an isolated holiday home where a woman and her lover (ex lover?) and a lawyer are having some sort of art experience – shooting holes in brightly daubed canvases.
Before long they are all joined by the lover’s wife, his son and the son’s nanny along with two suspicious cops. Four different groupings. Shake well and wait. Guns, death and mayhem ensue, some of which makes a kind of logical sense, most of which doesn’t. Er, the end. That really is all that happens.
It’s evident from the first shots – the close-ups, the sight of a Spanish church, the sound of a sign creaking in the wind, the cheroot in the mouth of one of the protagonists, the extreme starkness of the widescreen imagery – that Cattet and Forzani are aiming for Leone in his spaghetti western pomp. They also use old Ennio Morricone scores just in case we hadn’t twigged.
And they have chosen actors whose faces respond to that sort of iconographic treatment – Elina Löwensohn’s stark cheekbones and severe haircut, tits spilling this way and that, Stéphane Ferrara as Rhino, name no accident. Bernie Bonvoisin as La Brute, ditto. Marine Sainsilly, all flashing eyes and slinky body, as the nanny. Claudia Cardinale and Lee Van Cleef could wander in at any point and it would be no surprise.
Leone’s westerns were films about films – they amplified the style of the likes of John Ford into meta-statements. Cattet and Forzani run that idea through the Leone program one more time, to produce something that has now become almost an abstract impressionist western. The use of synecdoche – the part stands for the whole – becomes so predominant at one point that the film almost turns into a series of static close-ups. A bike stand. A pair of cops sunglasses. A narrowed eye.
Slot it in with other examples of the Weird West subgenre like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966), or High Plains Drifter (1973), Wild Wild West (1999) or even 2015’s Bone Tomahawk.
Unlike all of these films, here the style is in service of itself rather than the story. Some of that is understandable – who needs a blow by blow account of something this familiar? Instead of plot points, Cattet and Forzani (adapting Laissez Bronzer les Cadavres, the first novel written by the cult thriller writer Jean-Patric Manchette) give us moments of whacky respite. A naked woman is trussed in ropes and her tits start yielding champagne, the nanny is shot multiple times by a submachine gun and it only removes her clothes, leaving her unharmed but entirely naked.
Again, Dario Argento, is in here somewhere, as is Jodorowsky’s El Topo – the lurid colours, the tapping of the unconscious, the apparent indifference as to whether the audience start to titter at the eventual mad overkill of it all.
File under psycho steampunk, grunge homage, or where you like. It’s fascinating watching these two work, trying to keep their vision intact while also telling a story with a dramatic grip. What will they do next?
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© Steve Morrissey 2022