The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, May 2014

Review: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps) depicts the search of middle-aged telecommunications executive Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) first for his missing wife Edwige, then for a mysterious bearded man who keeps disappearing and reappearing, and finally for a secret long buried in the nineteenth-century art nouveau building that Dan calls home – but the film is also itself in search of its title’s meaning, building slowly and inexorably towards a climactic revelation that fleshes out in full colour a primal scene previously glimpsed only in evolving, impressionistic visions of black and white.

The title of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is an enigma, a challenge and a hermeneutic gambit, beginning with a promise of defamiliarisation (‘strange’), and ending with an odd kenning (‘body’s tears’) that, at least in its English version, involves significant equivocation. For while in normal usage the French ‘larmes’ can only denote lachrymal secretions, its English translation ‘tears’ might additionally, depending upon how it is pronounced, evoke the rips, holes, wounds, splits and gashes that will form a recurrent, eroticised motif in the film (though initially unaware of these further implications in their film’s English title, Belgian writing/directing couple Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet have revealed to me their delight with them).

The initial appearance of the title in bold, singularly scarlet capitals may prime viewers to have an idea what the ‘strange colour’ may be (and also what ‘body’s tears’ will most likely signify, given the sanguineous hue being associated with them), but cinematographer Manuel Dacosse’s liberal use of filters, as well as the prominent presence of stained-glass windows, subsequently brings plenty of other colours to the palette – and yellow will come to dominate no less than deep red. After all, this film, like Forzani and Cattet’s feature debut Amer (2009), steeps itself in the grammar, iconography and scores (here lovingly magpied) of the sensationalist mystery genre known as giallo (Italian for ‘yellow’), so named for the trademark sleeve colour of the lurid Italian pulp novels that were its original inspiration. Indeed, even the title is an allusive pastiche of such gialli as Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) and All The Colors Of The Dark (1972), and Giuliano Carnimeo’s What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (1972) – all three of which starred Edwige Fenech, whose forename is shared by a key (if absent) character in Forzani and Cattet’s film. By the time the closing credits roll, this most polysemic of titles has transformed once again, recurring with the word couleur slightly altered to douleur, as though to acknowledge that by now bodily emissions have become firmly associated (at least in one disturbed character’s mind) with both mental anguish and physical pain. There is also, in that étrange douleur, something of the pangs of nostalgic melancholy that the viewer has come to experience during the film’s confounding journey back to childhood. For although The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears appears to be set in the present day, its retro giallo-esque gestures, its outmoded grammophones and tape reels, the marked absence of computers or digital devices, and the resemblance of its protagonist’s apartment to a Seventies bachelor pad, all point back to the age of the hero’s youth, if not necessarily his innocence.

While Dan has been away in Frankfurt on business, Edwige has vanished from their elegant Brussels apartment with the door still on the latch, setting up what appears to be a classic locked room mystery – yet the building, with its Escher-like labyrinth of trompe-l’oeil perspectives, paradoxical passageways and hidden recesses, appears increasingly to mirror the turbulent state of Dan’s tormented mind as he repeatedly chases his own tail in pursuit of an elusive memory well-immured in his own unconscious. The idea that this entire narrative might be quite literally psychedelic, exposing the inner architectonics of a damaged brain, is first suggested by the film’s opening scene, in which Dan is shown falling asleep on a plane. If everything that follows this is a nightmarish flight of fancy taking place entirely within the solipsistic confines of Dan’s own headspace, then that would certainly explain why the film is so overtly oneiric in its disregard for spatio-temporal continuities; or why Tange plays not only Dan but also the detective who subsequently helps Dan look for Edwige; or why, in one extraordinary sequence, Dan finds himself divided schizophrenically between the roles of predator, victim and voyeuristic eyewitness during a grotesque, razor-sharp invasion of both his home and his body.

As Dan takes his frantic inquiries from floor to floor, along the way picking up from the neighbours cryptically connected tales of missing persons, anxious husbands, sadomasochistic eroticism and of course blood, we too become lost in the elaborate Chinese-box structure of stories within stories – and storeys within storeys – all painting a fractured portrait of a disturbed, deeply repressed man and his conflicted attitude (of both desire and disgust) towards women, traceable all the way back to a boyhood trauma rooted in biology. As such, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is the perfect companion piece to Forzani and Cattet’s Amer, continuing to distil the language of giallo down to its sensory quintessence, while refocusing the earlier film’s disorienting subjectivity from a female to a male perspective. Here, giallo is also renationalised into peculiarly Belgian idioms: the mannered buildings of Victor Horta play a significant part in the film’s design (Dan’s mazelike apartment complex is in fact formed from a composite of seven different houses); and even René Magritte’s iconic bowler hat makes an aptly surreal cameo, haunting the dreamlike experiences of a woman in another locked room.

Not only is Dan’s psyche refracted through a convoluted series of dizzyingly asymmetric structures (both architectural and narrative), but also all manner of stylistic gestures are brought into play to enhance the way the film constantly confounds and unsettles the viewer – although the style, far from compromising the substance, becomes its uncanny vehicle. If the screen is at times split, so too is the protagonist’s mind. If one sequence is presented in a series of flickering monochrome stills, this finds its echo (and is decoded) in a subsequent scene where a young boy is shown flipping through the pages of a softcore magazine (entitled Plaisir). If, in the opening credit sequence, different images of the building’s exterior are made to rotate and blur as though part of a kaleidoscope or Rubik’s cube, this anticipates the twin motifs of childish things and recovered meaning. Everything here is intelligently, if oddly, constructed to create a puzzle that the viewer can revisit and piece together in multiple configurations. So no matter if you cannot always tell Dan and Detective Vincentelli apart, or if Edwige, Barbara, Dora and Laura (the latter significantly sharing her name with the late titular heroine of Otto Preminger’s 1944 film) all begin to blur into one (much as they do in Dan’s mind) – the key here is to find a way through the film’s dark, secret places to the very heart of its reverse-engineered murder mystery. Alternatively, just surrender wholly to the heady psychosexual odyssey so consummately charted by the filmmakers. For this synaesthetic fever dream, working hand in glove with the tropes of giallo to build its own hermetic world, is a deliriously unnerving (and violent) model for ‘total cinema’ at its most hyper-sensual and polychromatic – period.

Synopsis: Telecommunications businessman Dan Kristensen falls asleep on a plane. Back in Brussels, he discovers that his wife Edwige is missing from their locked apartment. Helped in his investigation of this mystery by Detective Vincentelli, Dan hears strange stories of anxiety, disappearance, sadomasochism and bloody death from several neighbours: ‘crazy old woman’ Dora, dominating Barbara, the landlord Dermont, and an elusive bearded man. Convinced someone is watching him from within the apartment, Dan finds an audio reel of a woman expressing her desire to make him suffer, and notepaper with ‘7’ (the number of Barbara’s apartment) written on it. After a wounding sexual encounter with Barbara, Dan wakes besides Edwige’s severed head (with a deep bloody gash in the skull). Dan is plagued by nightmares of home invasion. Dermont reads the diary of a woman beleaguered by a bowler-hatted, razor-wielding spectre. After revealing to Dan that hidden passages connect the apartments, the bearded man is murdered. Seeing Barbara about to stab the drugged and straddled Dermont, Vincentelli shoots her. In room 7, Vincentelli finds a woman’s body (with skull gash) and, in a box marked ‘Laura’, an album with photos of various women (including Edwige). After Vincentelli shoots at a mirrored cupboard and a body (with skull gash) falls out, Vincentelli is stabbed. Through a hole in his bathroom wall, Dan enters a secret labyrinth leading to a red door (marked ‘L’, an inverted ‘7’), behind which a young, horrified boy watches adolescent Laura bleeding from between her legs.

© Anton Bitel