Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) (2017) | Directed by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Written by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani | Starring Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin
Adapted from the 1971 novel Laissez bronzer les cadavres! | Written by Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean-Pierre Bastid
Having gathered a cult following after pastiches of lurid European giallos in their first two features – Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) – in their 2017 film Let the Corpses Tan, Belgian duo Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani pay tribute to the violent European crime thrillers of the 1970s.
Cattet and Forzani make it clear from the outset that this is a splatter film – in the opening scene, in an array of disorienting closeups – imperious, cigar-smoking, ‘artist’ Luce (Elina Löwensohn) insists on her acolytes firing a series of bullets into a canvas she has splashed with messy splodges of colour. This anticipates the palette for the rest of the film, which is a riot of sun-soaked reds, blues, yellows and gold.
Luce lives in a crumbling castle atop a craggy peak overlooking the Mediterranean (filmed in Corsica) in dogged bohemian isolation from society, accompanied by a gaggle of misfits: Luce’s younger lawyer-lover (Michelangelo Marchese); a clapped-out writer called Bernier (Marc Barbé), who spends most of his time in a stupor, and ‘La brute’ (Bernie Bonvoisin).
She is a middle-aged woman fantasising about an erstwhile role as a nubile art-goddess-muse, who is in turn tortured and worshipped by her male followers (whether this is a past reality or just wishful thinking is never made clear.)
She is a typical French-language cinematic creation – a female character only considered ‘interesting’ because of her inclination towards nudity, provocative behaviour and a bit of sexual deviance. She strides about her domain in boots and little else, smoking, taunting the males, and exploding into the kind of raucous laughter which signifies eccentricity if not outright madness. So, nothing new there.
However, she is soon joined in her playground by some less harmless pals – a gang of brutish thieves who have just robbed an armoured car, cold-bloodedly executing the guards and making off with 250 kilograms of gold ingots.
Led by grizzled veteran Rhino (Stéphane Ferrara) the gang oddly decide to halt in the midst of their getaway to pick up some stranded travellers, who also turn out to be en route to Luce’s castle. They comprise of writer Bernier’s abandoned wife (Dorylia Calmel), her son (Bamba Forzani Ndiaye) and a young nanny (Marine Sainsily).
Their entrance further complicates an already volatile situation, as before long, having tracked down the gangsters, a pair of nattily leather-clad, motorbike-riding gendarmes (Hervé Sogne and Dominique Troyes) arrive on the scene.
Once all of the protagonists are assembled, a round of allegiances, double and triple-crossings and betrayals ensue, accompanied by a protracted series of shoot-outs. As darkness falls, the characters’ physical locations around the ruins shift, their alliances change, the blood begins to flow – and the logistics of the situation begin to test the viewers comprehension – keeping track of who’s shooting at whom and who is on whose side becomes a challenge.
Adapted from a 1971 crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, the film is a blood, sweat and urine soaked tribute to a bygone era of European westerns, replete with all the outdated traits of vintage exploitation films, including Spaghetti Western-style closeups of glaring eyes in sweaty faces, gratuitous nudity, solarized images and flashbacks, disorienting cross-cutting, and crude symbolism. To enhance the nostalgia value the film is shot in super-16mm and uses archival tracks by genre legend Ennio Morricone and hit songs from the 1960s on its soundtrack.
Despite the violence, sex and gore, the viewer doesn’t seem to experience much in the way of emotion as the filmmakers continue to pile on the odd camera angles, lurid colour stocks, and fragmented editing with little consideration for overall pacing, suspense or story. The characters barely rise above the level of archetypes and the frenetic surface flashiness only serves to disguise the inner hollowness.
The link between art, sex, and violence appears to be the only thread which tenuously holds together the film’s callous detachment and sexual and religious imagery. The visuals are decorated and fetishized in black leather, guns, insects, skulls, with endless close-ups of clammy faces, grimacing in pain, ecstasy or hate. Cattet and Forzani present sex and greed as the most basic motivations in their nihilistic universe. So far, so French.
However, love it or hate it, Let The Corpses Tan again shows that Cattet and Forzani’s movies are remarkable feats of imitation and detail – their flashy repertoire may be limited, but their technique is excellent. Their work is the epitome of style over substance – it is the kind of thing that divides audiences but a particular type of cinephile will undoubtedly adore.