The first sound we hear in Let the Corpses Tan is a gunshot. Closeups of the blistering sun, eyes, pistol muzzles, cigars, exploding liquids, and lips soon follow. Also, more gunshots. It’s a gruesome, erotic, and appropriate way to open a heist film. But the fluids, it turns out, are paint, the abstraction is on a canvas, and the bullets are fired to make a painting. The brief scene, playful but filled with a tension that isn’t deflated by its limited scrutability, typifies Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s work. Using the conventions of various B-movie genres, they weave together dense, enigmatic, and corporeal films.
The couple’s prior features have been praised for their original revitalization of the giallo. Let the Corpses Tan, based on Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s as-yet-untranslated novel of the same name from 1971, sees the duo adopting the vernacular of the spaghetti western and poliziotteschi, an Italian genre of pulpy crime films. The film centers around a bloody shootout on the grounds of a sunbaked Corsican mountain village, where the sybaritic and anarchic artist Luce (Elina Löwensohn) lords over her lover, ex-lover, the latter’s wife and child, and the gangsters who are in hiding after an armored car robbery. When two cops show up, an intricate narrative of shifting perspectives is kicked into gear as the double crosses mount and bullets fly.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Cattet and Forzani at Quad Cinema, where we discussed finding the perfect location for Let the Corpses Tan, their creative process, and the idea of style as substance.
The thing that stands out most about Let the Corpses Tan is the setting. How did you two settle on this location?
Hélène Cattet: We scouted for a year and a half trying find a good spot, because we were telling ourselves that if we don’t find a good place, we can’t make the movie. We needed a strong place, since everything in the movie takes place there. So, we saw maybe—
Bruno Forzani: Maybe 40 villages.
Were they all around Corsica?
HC: No, it was the south of France—
HC and BF: Italy—
BF: Sicily, Corsica, lots.
HC: We had to see a lot, a lot, a lot!
BF: And the village we picked was very special because of the sea. The other ones didn’t have the sea [nearby] and that changed everything. The [other villages] were surrounded by gray mountains, so it would have been a gray movie. [all laugh] But the place we picked, near the sea, the blue color made it [seem] like a blue desert, which reminded us of a western ghost town.
The blues in the film are incredible. Was the usage of blue something special for you, or were you just excited to have the sea in the shot?
BF: We wanted to shoot it the same way we shot Amer. [In that film] there’s a part that’s lit only with the sun and mirrors and the blue of the sea, the blue of the sky, the red of a dress, and everything like that. And we wanted to find that feeling again. We shot with Kodak 50D and we loved the result, because with the color grading afterward, you push it a little bit like Technicolor and you have a nice result. As a shooting experience it was very overwhelming because you are outside in a natural area and it gives a lot of strength.
HC: There was a lot of energy on the set, which was perfect for the crew because it was a very complicated set and you could only access it by foot. Each day we had to climb under the sun and then go back down.
BF: It was like a ritual to go each morning with the actors and the crew.
Carrying your camera on your back—
BF: There were donkeys carrying the food. [all laugh]
Oh my god!
BF: It was really—
HC: —really hard because there was no electricity, no water, nothing there!
BF: So, all the equipment had to be brought by helicopter before shooting and after shooting. So, all the cars, the motorcycles, the camera, and everything like that was brought by electricity.
HC: No, by helicopter! [laughs]
BF: There’s no electricity, but there’s a helicopter.
It was just sent over the internet or something [all laugh]. How long was the shoot then? I imagine it must have been fairly expensive shoot if you had to helicopter everything in.
HC: It was not an expensive movie. But it was two months of filming.
BF: Forty days.
HC: Forty days of shooting but everything was really prepared.
The film has some very precise ways of orienting the gunmen in space and given that you didn’t have the ability to make the set yourself, I’m curious how you went about mapping it out and preparing it.
BF: First, the script is adapted from a book. There was a [strong sense of] space or geometry in the book and we were inspired by the space. All the images we had when we wrote the script were based on the book, but this space in the book didn’t actually exist. We went where [the book is set] and it was a fake space. In fact, it was a “mind space,” and when we found this abandoned village in Corsica, we had to, uh—
BF: Adapt all the storyboard and images we had in mind to this abandoned village because it’s an abandoned village from the 15th century and you can’t remove a single stone.
HC: Not one rock!
BF: Not one rock, and so to find a good point of view—
HC: The good angles.
BF: The good angles and everything like that was a big job and we, voila, couldn’t see some of the building because some walls [were standing in the way], so we had to choose some specific angles of view. And since we couldn’t bring cars and things like that, thinking about how to do the stunts in this area was very difficult. In fact, we had to adapt ourselves to this location. It took a month and a half of work to find the right angles and, voila, for us it was the main character, so we had to respect it [all laugh] every time we went.
HC: Yeah, we had to prepare there.
BF: The landscape influenced the film. There was a second storyboard made just for that space.
All of your features to date involve some sort of labyrinthian or enclosed space. Is there something about that that attracts both of you?
BF: In fact, for this one, we wanted to work on space and time.
HC: Very geometrically.
BF: We didn’t want to “cheat” because the first two films we did, we cheated a lot. But in fact, we couldn’t make it without cheating.
What do you mean by cheating?
BF: Cheating you know—
Okay, so you didn’t use a soundstage?
BF: And, in fact, we used the fact that the ruins in this village are very labyrinthian and didn’t do something as [gestures with hands rigid and held parallel to each other] as we wanted to do initially.
One of the things that interested me is the rhythm of the film. It’s so complex, entire sequences of events are elided with a single cut, but other shots are revisited over and over. I want to hear a little about the editing process, because it must have been intense.
HC: Everything was prepared before the shoot. We just wanted to tell the story through the action and not didactic dialogue. Everything was thought out, even the editing, during the script writing and storyboarding. So, when we got to the editing, the editor had to place [each shot] like a puzzle.
BF: A jigsaw.
HC: A jigsaw, I don’t know how to say it. He had to put each shot—
BF: —in the right order because we shot in a very chaotic order because there are several sets. [Our shooting schedule] didn’t follow the [film’s] chronology on set. We knew that shot one would be after shot two and shot two after shot three and we knew exactly how they’d be edited, so when editing started the editor just had to put shot one, shot two, shot three. It took a long time—
HC: —to do that—
BF: —because there are thousands of shots [in the film].
HC: Then we worked on the rhythm, the actor’s performance, and things like that with him.
BF: And so, as we don’t have any direct sound, it’s just the—
HC: The rhythm of the image.
BF: The rhythm of the image. It’s not based on any sound rhythm, it’s just the rhythm of the image. And afterward, we do the sound around the rhythm of the image. Usually you do the rhythm of the music first, but here we did the opposite. It’s not a hard process. It’s just a question of rhythm and performances. The problem is that if, while shooting, we miss one shot we are trapped because we don’t [shoot coverage]. We know that we’re going to do that and after that a large scale [shot]. But we don’t say, “Oh, there is the burglary sequence, we’re going to do—
HC: —in the larger shot.”
BF: In, say, 10 shots and see what we’re going to do during editing. No. We know exactly that there will be, for instance, closeups of the eye, closeups of the trigger, and things like that.
HC: So, if there is—
HC and BF: —one missing—
BF: —piece we are fucked. [all laugh]
So, you essentially edited while storyboarding.
HC: Yes, exactly.
Wow. You just mentioned the sound design and I found this quote from the American writer Gary Indiana, describing Jean-Patrick Manchette’s writing. He says that, “Characters take shape through fleeting expressions, gestures, physical sensations and dialogue as artlessly awkward as fumbling everyday speech.” This description reminded me of the very textural sound design of the film. It made me curious how you approached the sound design overall.
HC: For the sound process, we shoot without direct sound, which is faster. Once we are editing, everything is muted and we go with the Foley guy to a sound shooting. So, for two weeks, two intensive weeks, [laughs] we create all the sounds. Everything, the whispers, every sound. There’s a way to prepare this. We choose the texture of each sound, what we want, what color of sound we want, so [the Foley guy] can research it.