By SHAWN MACOMBER
Twenty years ago, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani decided to take in a movie. It would prove a fateful decision: Though destined to become the visionary directing duo behind such lush, gorgeous, reality-refracting films as AMER and THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, on this day Cattet and Forzani were simply fast friends from Brussels who had bonded over a shared loved of outsider art and cinema.
By the time the last frames of Gasper Noé’s I STAND ALONE had flickered and the house lights were raised, however, everything had changed. “That film inspired us so much,” Cattet recalls. “First of all, it was self-produced. And then it was full of these simple, fantastic shots and strange, intriguing framings. We talked for so long afterward about this very special thing we had just witnessed. It moved us. Suddenly, so much seemed possible.”
“It was,” Forzani adds in eager agreement, “a real firestarter for us, creatively.”
In a wonderful full-circle moment, Cattet and Forzani will screen I STAND ALONE as part of Origin Stories, a wild and subversive week of screenings they’ve curated for New York City’s Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street). The lineup is a ’60s and ’70s-heavy cavalcade of classics and hidden gems from Mario Bava, Jess Franco, Giulio Questi, Philippe Grandrieux, Johnnie To, Andrea Bianchi, John Boorman, Georges Lautner and others. Amidst this extravaganza—launching today and running through September 1—the pair’s breathtaking, vivifying new feature LET THE CORPSES TAN begins a nationwide series of playdates (see the full list here) August 31, with Cattet and Forzani in attendance for select screenings at the Quad.
“For us, genre is more linked to subculture, to punk, to underground—not to make a product,” Forzani muses of the series’ diverse range of selections. In the idiosyncratic, iconoclastic realm he and Cattet have summoned into existence, the intermingling of the psychedelic with the political with the experimental with the fantastique with giallo, neo-noir and Westerns—spaghetti and otherwise—is less a conceit or stunt than simply a mapping of their now-spliced cinematic genome.
The vibe, Forzani hopes, will echo that of the video store on the French/Italian border in which he passed his preteen years, undergoing a crash course in cinema under the tutelage of clerks and fellow clientele. “I’d spend all afternoon talking with the guy who ran the store or someone browsing the same section as me,” he recalls. “I discovered a lot of unexpected things that way. It was something very human. I shared a lot. I learned a lot.”
This was how the young HALLOWEEN/NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fanatic graduated from slasher fare—“I was becoming a bit bored because for me it was like a recipe, and sometimes the situations between the murder were a bit boring—you know, people talking, talking. I didn’t find the kick, OK?”—to headier, more refined, often esoteric material. “This Italian guy told me, ‘You should watch TENEBRAE from Dario Argento,’ ” Forzani says. “Voila! For me, that was the beginning of everything. It was exploitation, but it was art as well—pure cinema that spoke to me much more than all the slashers.”
Forzani went down the rabbit hole: Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and far, far beyond—an education he was more than happy to pay forward to Cattet when the moment arrived. “Actually, when I first met Bruno, I was not yet quite a cinephile,” she says. “I was more looking for a way to express myself, and had come to view movies as a potential doorway to my mind [through which] I could bring out certain ideas or images or stories.” She was, in fact, then a bookseller by trade, working in a shop and delving into book after book after book, collecting—subconsciously, perhaps—scenes, atmosphere and storytelling that would serve her well later on. “It was very inspiring,” she says. “I never saw inspiration or art as any one thing, though. Literature inspired me, yes, but so do paintings and architecture. Everything can be an inspiration.”
Film at the time could be described as something akin to a small blotch on Cattet’s palette into which she occasionally considered dipping her brush. “I was a fan of [legendary French writer, multimedia artist and filmmaker] Chris Marker’s experimental work—and I wanted to experiment myself,” she says.
Cinema took on more primacy for her once Forzani began to give her a guided tour through Italian genre and horror movies. (DEEP RED proved a particular and enduring influence to her.) Cattet, in turn, introduced Forzani to non-celluloid media which broadened his conception of what film could be. “We combined our two universes,” she confirms. Between 2000 and 2004, the two collaborated on a series of well-received shorts. Their head-turning debut feature AMER arrived in 2009, followed by the ABCs OF DEATH segment “O is for Orgasm” in 2012. A year later came the breakthrough: THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, a tour de force melding of whodunit and surrealist nightmare.
There would, however, be no resting on laurels or water-treading. “We began to write STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS in 2001 and we completed the film in 2013,” Forzani explains. “Twelve years. At the end, there was a bit of chaos between the two of us, because this project meant so much to us and we had been so long in the process that it became a little bit a nightmare, OK? So if we wanted to continue to work together, we couldn’t make something as personal or intimate again—at least, not immediately.”
A decade before, Cattet had thrilled to Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s novel LAISSEZ BRONZER LES CADAVRES, telling Forzani at the time, “ ‘If one day we do a book adaptation, we will do this one,’ “ she recalls. “ ‘Read this, because there is a beautiful work we could do here with landscape, with space, with chronology, with time.’ I like when it’s like this—when the spectator has to find his own place in the story. I also really wanted to do a Western.”
Initially, Forzani resisted: “I thought it was maybe too different a storytelling approach for us. AMER and STRANGE COLOR were more labyrinthine, more surrealistic, and this book was very straightforward.”
In the post-STRANGE COLORS environment, however, Forzani warmed considerably to the concept. “Looking back, this was the perfect time to make LET THE CORPSES TAN,” he says. “When we began to work on the script, I saw that we could in fact find our universe in the universe of the book. And I’m glad I agreed, because this is the project that allowed us to reconnect artistically. It let us find a place where we could communicate and work together again in interesting, exciting ways. If we had continued to go in the same direction as STRANGE COLOR and AMER, it would maybe have been too much of a clash for us to continue, you know?”
There is certainly no sign of conflict or “creative differences” in LET THE CORPSES TAN—a bold, brilliantly realized, delicious film teeming with not only the trademark Forzani and Cattet off-kilter visuals and narrative, but also stunts, gunfights, brutal Corsican beauty, humor and, of course, vivid arcs of Argento-esque blood. All this action takes place in a remote, tiny seaside community overlooking the Mediterranean, where a group of criminals ends up after hijacking a truck carrying a shipment of gold. They are followed by a couple of motorcycle-riding police officers, precipitating a series of violent confrontations between—and among—the crooks, the cops and the locals.
“We shot in a very complicated location—there wasn’t any road going to our abandoned village set—but all the crew and actors were very happy, very present, very committed,” Forzani says. “Which is important. We try to have pleasure, you know. It’s so difficult to make a movie—it takes so long to prepare and shoot, and then at the end, when you are in postproduction, it feels like a neverending tunnel. You have to be passionate—really passionate—to get to the end of a film. And so, when we work together, it’s always a challenge to try to achieve a film that is a part of Hélène, a part of Bruno. This is why we can only really make movies we absolutely love—the ones for which we have 150 percent passion. That is what we had for LET THE CORPSES TAN.”
“Voila!” Cattet adds.