The new Senses of Cinema features, alongside its other pleasures, a dossier on the giallo and further genre deconstructions of filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. An interview with Anton Bitel captures the pair’s humor, practicality, and intellectual ambitions (“We had a lot of pleasure when we have watched these movies as an audience, we had a very big cinematic pleasure, and we too want to create a kind of little orgasm for the audience, you know, to give pleasure. We like to take that grammar to tell our own stories, and not do, like, a fan film about giallo or western, but to take this oneiric grammar, in fact—because there is a big oneirism in this genre about eros and thanatos – and to talk about desire.”); Kat Ellinger traces their acknowledged debt to Sergio Martino (“Martino wasn’t without his own subversions when it came to giallo. Like Cattet and Forzani, he reintepreteted specific conventions which, through this re-rendering, belonged to him and him alone.”), while Clare Nina Norelli explores some of their creative resettings of famous giallo scores (“Cattet and Forzani’s recontextualisation of Morricone’s Maddalena score has transmogrified the images on screen, elevating their murder mystery narrative into the realm of the spiritual.”). Aside from his interview duties, Bitel also contributes a piece on gender viewed through Cattet and Forzani’s dual gaze (“A couple (like Argento and Nicolodi) in real life as well as joint writers and directors of all their films, they regender the grammar of their adopted genres by articulating them in a creative exchange between the sexes.”); Martyn Contario extends consideration of the genres explored by the couple to the Freudian thrillers of classic Hollywood (“[Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears] share tortured male protagonists searching for the answer to a repressed memory, hinged upon depictions of troubled minds as architectural spaces to wander.”); and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas praises the slippery role memory and association plays in their casting with a tribute to Elina Löwensohn’s starring turn in their latest, Let the Corpses Tan (“A man can be seen behind the gun, but it is a woman’s face in extreme close-up that catches our breath: her eyes, her pores, her lines, the moisture on her tongue, the gaps in her teeth, her mouth in general as she gnaws on a cigarette.”). And just when you might be wondering how Cattet and Forzani’s approach to filmmaking is economically viable, Jeremi Szaniawski chats with their producer Ève Commenge to get a sense of their very pragmatic approach to filming (“The production design of Amer and Let the Corpses Tan was similar: in both cases we were dealing with old places in ruins, threatening to collapse, we had to know exactly which places to redo. The set designer knew she had to do a fake wall in a designated place, and that it had to be 2.5 metres tall, and not an inch more. Pre-production was clear and precise, and there was no improvisation on the set.”)
The Belgian writer/director team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are obsessed with the 1970s Italian horror subgenre known as giallo. Their 2010 Amer was a cool one-off, a clever compendium of lovingly imitated giallo motifs that also created a lush experience in and of itself. Except it wasn’t a one-off, because here’s another excursion into a world of saturated colors, sexed-up violence, and utterly incomprehensible storytelling. Cattet and Forzani may have gone to the well once too often, because Strange Color lacks the freshness of Amer. As a technical stunt, though, it’s super-trippy.
The title is meant to evoke long-winded gialli such as Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Mario Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon.
Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).
Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.