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Interview: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani on Let the Corpses Tan

The married filmmakers discuss their creative process, style versus substance, and more.

Peter Goldberg

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Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Photo: Kino Lorber

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—

BF: Spain—

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—

HC: Adapt.

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—

HC: Tricks.

Okay, so you didn’t use a soundstage?

BF: Well, for Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears we had four or five sets for one sequence. And this one we wanted to do all on one set.

HC: Yeah!

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.

Color of sound?

HC: Color of sounds, yeah. [all laugh]

You have to elaborate on that, I won’t let you get away with that one!

HC: It’s really like this! We discuss a special color beforehand and then he chooses objects to make the sounds and we can—

BF: —[for instance], sharper, softer. Something based on sensations. And some of these sensations are colors. [laughs]

So, what color were the leather sounds?

BF: Black! [laughs]

That was an easy one! I was also wondering whether Manchette’s writing inspired the sound design in any way.

BF: That’s exactly why we chose this book. Because he had a behaviorist writing approach, which was our approach in our previous films where characters are described through their action in the present and not with a background psychologization. When Hélène read the book, it reminded her of our approach. It describes a guy who’s drinking coffee or putting on his gloves or something like that, it’s in the exact same style [as our films].

HC: Yeah, you can feel the character. You understand them through their action and not through their intellectual speech.

Is there a particular reason you chose to adapt this novel over one of Manchette’s other ones then? This is your first adaptation.

HC: Yes, it is. For me, I wanted to make a western. When I read the book, there were so many western images, so—

BF: And for me, it was very cinematographic because the whole story was told through time and space, and time and space are the two pillars of cinema. It was very cinematographic, and as directors it was new for us. It was a real challenge because we’d never done gunfights or anything like that before. We went outside our comfort zone. Hélène really wanted to do this adaptation. I had more doubts about it because the storytelling was much different than what we’d done before, it was more labyrinthian, more fantastic. But working on this adaptation, we found little “doors” that allowed us to combine our universe with [Manchette and Bastid’s] universe, and to do a mix while being faithful to their universe and our universe. In fact, when I read the book I liked that there was a kind of fever that came with the action. We tried to re-transcribe that fever and chaos that interested me.

The book is not available in English, so I haven’t been able to read it, but to my understanding the character of Luce is a secondary character in the novel. Obviously, you’ve made her the central figure of your film. How did you develop her when writing the script?

BF: The book takes place in a very male universe, and by putting Luce at the center of the story, since we are a boy and a girl directing, there was a good balance. As I told you, we were looking for little doors in the novel to enter from our universe. Luce was the perfect door because through her the action and violence became like a performance. In fact, she reminded us a lot of Niki de Saint Phalle, a French artist from the nouveau réalisme movement. She was doing performances involving the destruction of rooms—

HC: Of cars—

BF: The society of consumption, of God imagery and things like that. It was based on subversion and destruction. And to approach gunfights and violence through that [lens] was a unique way to approach an action movie.

Luce presides over all this anarchy in the film, so I’m wondering if you saw a little of yourselves in her?

HC: Yes. [laughs] She’s our door.

Your daughter?

HC: Our door! [laughter all around]

BF: The couple of Luce and Max are like our doppelgangers! [both laugh]

HC: Yeah, developing them was interesting. They inspired us a lot.

Your films often involve a conflict between working-class and bourgeois individuals. Here it seems intensified. Is there something about the political nature of Manchette’s writing that made you want to expand on that here?

BF: When Hélène talked about westerns when she read the book, it reminded us of Italian westerns because they were anarchist westerns—

[someone brings over bagels]

BF: Ooh la la! [laughs] Ooh la la!

HC: Wow.

BG: Where the sheriff can be the bad guy. In fact, it’s that aspect that I love in Manchette and Italian westerns. When Manchette has been adapted before, this political aspect, which was one of the spices of his writing, always disappeared. It becomes more like a—

HC: —detective.

BF: Action or a police movie but without this political aspect, and it’s very important, in his—

HC: —in his work, yeah. He was an anarchist.

Yes. I got a chance to read his novel Fatale, about a woman who kills all the businessmen in a town, and that political sense really comes through.

HC: Yeah.

I wanted to ask about a criticism you often receive. In the North American press at least, your more disparaging critics accuse you of incoherence or making films that are all style and no substance. How do you respond to that criticism? Do you get it in Europe at all?

BF: For us, the style is the substance. We tell our story through the style. It’s like [the critics] read a word. They see the form of the word, but they don’t see its meaning. For me, it’s like political opinions. If you’re on the left you can’t understand why someone is on the right, and if you’re on the right you can’t understand why someone is on the left. For some, style can be a substance.

HC: But maybe it’s just because we are used to having things explained to us very didactically. We don’t want to make something didactic. We want the audience to be active. I’m happy because I see that each viewer—

BF: —has a different experience.

HC: Yes! Because you have a background and you see the movie with your background and it’s a unique movie, it’s your movie then! We know what we have put in the film and some people will see other things. When we discuss the film, it’s very interesting because it’s richer. I don’t know how to say it.

BF: It’s interesting because, for some people, our movies are very deep, and for other people there is nothing besides [gestures hands to suggest a surface]. It’s voila. For me, there is not one kind of audience, there are several kinds of audiences. Some people will respond to it—

BF and HC: And others no.

I had a similar experience because I watched the film a few times to prep for this interview. Those cutaways with Luce where she’s on the cross were initially extremely puzzling. The more I watched it, the more affecting those shots became, but they also became more and more mysterious.

BF: In fact, the thing is, we think about re-watching the movie while we write the scripts. There is a Japanese director we love named Satoshi Kon who did Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, who developed a way of writing called “stereoscopic writing,” so each time you watch the movie you see different layers. A new layer, a new layer, and it goes deeper and deeper. And when we write our movies, we always think—

HC: —in that way.

BF: In that way. And so, maybe you don’t get it the first time you watch it, but after you watch it the second time, the third time—well, you have to want to watch it a second time. [all laugh] But it’s like a David Lynch film. The first time you see it you have a blast, you don’t understand it all, but the second time you begin to think “Ah, yes, there’s a link between that image and that image.” And [in that way] you build the movie watching and re-watching it.

I was watching an older interview with you two earlier today and you mentioned David Lynch. I realized it was the first time I’d heard about a contemporary influence on your work.

BF and HC: [both laugh]

It’s not an insult!

BF: No, no, no!

And the influence of genre film is obvious in your films, but some critics have also pointed out the influence of certain avant-garde and surrealist filmmakers. I was wondering if you could speak to those influences at all?

BF: David Lynch is a big influence because his is a dreamlike way of writing that’s close to surrealism, “to write with the left hand.” And when we write our scripts, we always think about associating ideas and sounds in ways that are not natural. We really work by association.

HC: By association with the editing.

BF: Yeah, with the editing. Because it gives that sensorial approach to the film, to the cinema.

HC: Yeah.

BF: And we try, for instance, in Let the Corpses Tan, to move from the heist film to something more chaotic, orgasmic, fantastic, surrealistic, and it’s with that kind of [associative] writing that we achieved that. We watched all the end duels in Sergio Leone’s movies because we knew that our movie would be in the Italian western [style], but we didn’t want to do the same thing as Sergio Leone because it was a masterpiece—

HC: It was perfect.

BF: It’s perfect and it’s stupid to make it again. So, we went for something more abstract, based on what we did with The ABCs of Death, a short film we made called O Is for Orgasm, we tried to do a duel like that.

Did you feel you were trying to get at some sort of subtext of what’s usually found in the western film?

BF: When we read [Manchette and Bastid’s] book, it reminded us of the universe of the Italian western, because of the violence, characters, and Mediterranean landscape. And we didn’t want to pay homage to Italian westerns, but to use the language of the Italian western, the thematic, to tell our story. So, we didn’t say, “We’re going to do a sequence like in this Italian western.” No, it was just something that reminded us as an audience—

HC: A feeling.

BF: Feelings when we read the book. And for us, giallo and Italian westerns are made by two big directors, Sergio Leone and Dario Argento. All the codes of these genres are linked to mise-en-scène, to picture, to sound, and things like that. It’s not like in some genres where you have story codes, [in giallo and Italian westerns] there are just pure cinematic codes. So, you can take these codes, this language, to tell your story—

HC: Something different.

BF: And not just a western.

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