Interview: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet

First published by FilmDivider

Interviewer: Anton Bitel

It is a strange irony that the closer a filmmaker cleaves to genre, the more likely she or he is to transcend it, creating a quintessence that approaches a total, pure cinema. So it is with Belgian couple Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet, whose dizzying 2009 feature debut Amer and its even more complex follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears translate the vocabulary and idioms of giallo – a sensationalist Italian crime genre so named for the yellow (or giallo) dustjackets of Italian pulp detective novels – into an overwhelming hyperaesthetic poetry that is beyond genre.

These films are deeply divisive and practically define ‘not for everyone’ – but for those attuned to their richly allusive language and sensual overdrive, they form a delirious diptych of disorientation. Psychedelic not just for their heady confusion of overamplified sounds and colour-coded imagery, but also more literally for their presentation of psychosexual perversions in a near tactile form, they have been dismissed by some as meandering messes – but there is real method in their stylised madness, ensuring that multiple rewatches are amply rewarded.

FilmDivider’s conversation with Forzani and the heavily pregnant Cattet begins with their well-attested love of Dario Argento’s seminal giallo Deep Red (1975) and its influence on their work.

Bruno Forzani: For me Deep Red is about [how] you have to blow up, you have to relearn to watch an image, as the killer is in the image – and all what we are doing in The Strange Colour, it’s about this concept: you can watch an image in different ways, and find different meaning for one image. I think it’s the philosophy of giallo, in fact: you have to watch the image differently from the first look.

Hélène Cattet: It’s a game with the viewer, a game with the point-of-view…

[at this point, Cattet switches to French, and Forzani translates]

BF: …we like to play with the clichéattached to an image – and to give it another sense. There is one sequence in the movie, which we shot in black and white, which comes three or four times in the movie, and in that sequence there is a slight change each time, and it’s like Deep Red – a lot of people don’t see the change, but if you see it for the second or the third time that you watch the movie, you have the key to understand the movie.

FilmDivider: How on earth do you go about getting films as niche as Amer or The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears funded?

HC: It’s a little better. Amer has a very, very, very little budget, and in fact Amer, um…

BF: …had a little success, which helps for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. And we had the help of the Ministry of Culture for Belgium, and it’s not like private funding where people want results or something like that, it’s more open to strange results – that’s an important point too, I think.

FilmDivider: The ‘strange colour’ in your latest film’s title is both deep red, and an even deeper giallo. Could you explain the title’s multiple references?

 BF: In the title you have…

HC: …The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh [Sergio Martino, 1971]

BF: …What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? [Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972] – there is that…

HC: …All The Colors Of The Dark [Sergio Martino, 1972]

BF: …and after it’s about [how] the project comes back to the strong surrealist culture of Belgium in the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s a way to suggest a surreal title, that’s the other link. It’s not just giallo.

FilmDivider: Like the beautifully eccentric Art Nouveau building in which it takes place, your film is a labyrinth of cell-like stories and hidden recesses, all connected by odd architectural symmetries. Do you worry that you might lose the viewer in all this artful obliquity, or is that exactly what you hope will happen?

BF: That is the purpose of the movie, that’s exactly what we want to do.

FilmDivider: Was it only one building?

HC: We used seven houses to construct our imaginary house.

BF: The main one, where you see all the stairs and everything like that, it was perfect for the movie because when you are entering it you are totally lost, because it’s one house built on two houses, and all the perspectives are totally like Escher, you know. It’s like a labyrinth. It was very hard to understand the space, and we spent three days to understand how to film it. As we wanted to do a labyrinth with the movie, it was the perfect architecture for that, in fact.

FilmDivider: And did you deliberately have a strategy whereby, as soon as the story starts fixing itself in a certain direction, you make a point of veering off in a different direction?

HC: Yeah yeah yeah yeah.

BF: You know, we didn’t want to tell the story of a guy who lost himself, but we wanted the audience to feel he is lost, so be inside, we wanted you to feel the ‘waa-AAA-aaa-AAA-aaa!’ – you understand?

HC: It will be difficult to write that.

 FilmDivider: Some might see your film as all sensationalist style and no substance. Nothing wrong with that, of course – but I could discern real method in all the madness, and solid, thematic reasons why you were using, e.g., kaleidoscopic effects, or flickery photomontage, or split screens, with everything tightly (if oddly) structured to come together in the end. How did you go about conceiving and constructing your film, which I understand you have been working on since 2002?

HC: Yeah, exactly – for the script it was from 2002. It’s when we were preparing the movie that we asked ourselves, how can we induce something with the character…

BF: In fact we worked on the whodunnit structure and we had to deconstruct it. So it was like, how can we talk about something differently than just a detective interrogator who will tell a detective story. So we had the idea of the split screen – it’s not just aesthetic, it’s a way to talk about the guy and his relationship with the detective: is he a double? a reflection? Each time, we tried to work on each sequence to tell the story we want to tell – the story about the guy, not just the detective story. So we can cinematographically talk about our subject – because for me Amer was a story about paranoia, and this one a story about schizophrenia. And so, when I hear ‘style over substance’, for me it’s an archaic debate, because it is not an antagonism between the substance and style. Style turns to substance, style is the substance, so…

HC: …they complete each other

BF: Yeah, they complete each other.

HC: The style tells.

BF: And so we don’t put split screen or kaleidoscope to be nice. No, it’s to tell something. After, maybe people don’t see it, so they say there’s no substance, but why then don’t they say Michael Bay has no substance?

FilmDivider: On a related question, there were several sequences where I genuinely couldn’t tell whether I was watching Dan or I was watching the detective, and I took it after a while that that was a deliberate gesture on your part.

BF: Yeah.

FilmDivider: So was that done through casting and cutting?

BF: Yeah, casting and cutting, exactly. We have built a labyrinth, and we don’t want to give the red line to go to the issue. Again with the spectator and the film, where is the pleasure if you do a labyrinth and you say the exit is here, and you don’t get lost?

FilmDivider: Would it be correct to suggest that the ‘central narrative’ of your film – the key ‘events’ around which everything else is structured – take place entirely in the opening and the closing scene, and that everything else is staged in the protagonist’s mind as a sort of fantastical expression of his childhood fears and desires about women?

BF: Yes, it could be that – because in fact, what we have tried to do, we have written the script so that there are different layers and different kinds of interpretation of the movies. We are influenced a lot by Satoshi Kon, a Japanese director of anime. He constructs his stories like that – each time you see the film you discover new stuff. So for us, there is that aspect, and a sensual aspect, and maybe the first time you watch it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the assault of images and sound and things like that, and you’ll live an experience, and after the screening maybe you have some links come inside you, and you have some links – this this this – in your head, and after you see it a second time, it’s – ah yes, maybe that that that.

HC: The puzzle…

BF: The puzzle, it’s like a Rubik’s cube, you know. We have constructed the house like a Rubik’s cube at the beginning, with the titles [Forzani imitates the scraping, grating sound that accompanies the Rubikian imagery in the opening titles] – like that, and it’s like a Rubik’s cube inside you, and…

HC: …you reconstruct good colour. [laughs]

BF: Red red red – blue blue blue.

FilmDivider: The word ‘misogynistic’ gets bandied around a lot in discussions of giallo, and also in contemporary discussions of film in Britain, at least, where it’s become a real buzzword. Could you tell us why your film isn’t misogynistic?

BF: It’s funny because we had a lot of interviews where people were asking why we had so much more male nudity than female nudity.

HC: It’s equal.

BF: Yeah, and we were surprised by that. The women, who are usually the victims, are strong and the guy – called Dan Kristensen – is like what would be a woman in an old giallo, like a victim…

HC: …because he’s tortured…

BF: …because he’s tortured and everything like that…

HC: It’s part of the point of view.

BF: We have always been very for sex equality in violence, in fact. [Cattet laughs] So when we were doing our shots, one shot, it was a man who gets killed, the second shot, it was a woman.

HC: In Amer we were in the head of a woman, and here it’s like the little brother.

BF: For Amer the men were the objects, and this time, in this one, it’s the women who are the objects of the voyeur. I think it’s very reducing to say – because you know the knife between the legs of the little girl, there is the same shot in Amer with the taxi man, he gets stabbed in the legs, so for me it’s very reducing to put the film in [the category of] misogyny just because there is some violence against women. There is the same violence against men, the same nudity of men in this movie. And as our movie is talking about fantasy and sex, and very sadomasochistic fantasy, why should we just put violence against men and not against women?

FilmDivider: What’s your working practice given that you are co-directors and co-writers?

HC: In fact we are always working together. When we are writing the script, it’s like ping pong. So I write a draft, he corrects, he writes his draft, I correct, it’s like a table tennis thing, but on the set we are doing everything together.

BF: But maybe Hélène is more the brain and me the hand.

HC: No no no.

FilmDivider: What’s next?

BF: Well, for the moment – it was 11 years of work, this one, it has been very intense, and at the end to communicate creatively, it was a bit difficult, so now I think we need to take a little bit of distance, and try to recommunicate together artistically and see what will come.

HC: Oh yeah.