Fragments of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani first published by Senses of Cinema
On 22 February 2018, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan was screened at Ciné Lumière in London’s Institut Français Royaume-Uni, with the writer/directors in attendance. The following fragments have been reconstituted from both an interview conducted before the screening, and a Q&A after.
On first meeting and first making films together
Bruno Forzani: We met in Brussels, we were doing our studies, and at one point we became lovers. It was in 2000 – we will not agree on the date because it was at midnight, so for me it was the day before. One month after, we made our first short film together, Catharsis. It was an idea that I had had for several months, maybe a year – but I never had the will, you know, the strength to do it, and when we were together, Hélène said, “Why won’t we do it?” It was a short film about self-destruction, through giallo grammar…
Hélène Cattet: …but I didn’t want just to reproduce giallo, I wanted to do something personal, something of our own.
BF: Yes, it wasn’t a fan film – but from the beginning it wasn’t a fan film, it was to talk about self-destruction through the giallo spectrum. And of course Hélène loved Chris Marker’s Level Five  and La Jetée , so she had the idea to shoot – because we wanted to shoot on film, but we had just 75 Euro to make the short – and so we did slides, like Chris Marker did in La Jetée. It was in our basement, and all the budget went into the lasagne that she made for the crew… This was shot in one weekend. Friday night, she said, “Why don’t we do a short tomorrow, for the weekend?” – and we have done it for fun, and we finished it the next Friday, one week after. And that was the beginning, it went like that. Voilà!
On negotiating sexual equality
BF: When we made our short films, in one … it was a man who was killed, in the other it was a woman. We wanted to be equal in the violence [both laugh], and in the male and female aspect. Sometimes we have discussions about that, because when you write the script you imagine the ideas in your brain on a large scale, and it’s very violent, but after, when you direct it, it’s another point of view on it, and sometimes – when for instance, I had an idea for a female murder in Chambre Jaune, we had a lot of discussion about violence in that – it can be artful in your head, but when you try it, it’s not subtle, and we find a way to do it. And after, when we made Amer, we wanted to direct a nice male murder, because there’s not a lot of male murder in giallo, and not a lot of eroticised male murder, and we wanted to do that, real nice. [both laugh]. Even if in Amer it is the female point of view [which dominates], there are other erotic points of view, and even if in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, it is the male, we have the two points of view.
HC: …and with Let the Corpses Tan there is both too.
On living and working together
HC: Sometimes it’s really easy, we are on the same wavelength – it’s really rich, because it’s two universes, so it’s richer than just one universe. But sometimes we have to fight a lot, because sometimes we don’t have the same point of view, and someone has to make a decision, someone has to make a…
HC: …a compromise. So it’s a balance. We prepare a lot, because we try to tell the story in a sensual way, so it’s really subjective, so we really need to work on the same wavelength. So when we disagree, it’s complicated, we have to decide.
BF: It’s 18 years that we have worked together, and it’s both constructive and destructive. We construct our life with short films and features, but it destroys us too, because, you know, it’s always in our discussion and it’s in our everyday life, and so it’s very like a poison, you know.
HC: It can be.
BF: It can be like a poison. With Strange Colour, it was like the apotheosis of the poison. When we were making our short films, we made all the storyboards together, and when we began to do Amer, it was our first feature, and we had the bad idea to divide the storyboards, me, I do a part, and Hélène, another part, but we were not in the same process. And so it began to be something a bit chaotic, because if you don’t participate in the process you don’t understand what the other wanted to do, and the other doesn’t understand what you wanted to do. And so, with Strange Colour, it was the apotheosis also of that misunderstanding. And for Let The Corpses Tan we came back to doing the storyboard together, from the first shot to the last shot. It was easier, no?
HC: Yeah yeah, sure.
BF: In fact, with Strange Colour, at the end we were like enemies. We built something, but we had totally destroyed our relationship in fact.
On genre, purity and the subconscious
BF: With giallo and the [spaghetti] western, you have Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, they are big metteurs en scène, and so all the codes of these genres are linked to the mise en scène – the frames, the framing, the editing, the music, the settings. It’s not like maybe slashers or things like that – it’s pure cinema. 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. For Amer it was the discovery of sexuality, desire, things like that – it’s the perfect genre to talk about this subject. We work with the subconscious, when we are writing, because you want to touch the senses through the subconscious, like in dreams, so that even if you don’t understand, you are touched by something sensorial. To find an instance from Let the Corpses Tan, in the sequence where you have the machine gun tearing the girl’s dress, it’s not in the book. In the book, there is a psychological state explained. You can put a voiceover, and she is saying, “Blah blah blah,” ok…and we tried to recreate it…
BF: …visually, yes. In an oneiric way. In a surrealistic way. It may be for that [reason] that we tried to work a lot with our subconscious and not to control everything. When we have a first draft, we see if some things are too obvious, and we try to hide – erase – the elements that are too obvious.
In fact, in the way we write, first comes the subject, the story – for instance, with Amer it was the [protagonist’s] discovery of her sexual desire. And after, it’s how we treat it, and how we’re going to let the audience feel – chaos, quest, desire – and we try to express it through this subconscious writing. But it was a very simple story: for the [protagonist’s] childhood, we worked on one genre which was the gothic film like The Drop of Water [from the anthology Black Sabbath, 1963] by Mario Bava, a fairytale for adults. After, for the second part, we approached it like a pinku eiga, like a Japanese pinku movie; and for the last part, for the [protagonist’s] adulthood, we thought the giallo genre was the best genre to talk about the character. So that was a simple story – but after, for Strange Colour, it was more like the structure of a whodunnit, for a guy that investigates the disappearance of his wife, and we wanted that whodunnit to become a ‘who-am-I’. And so we had a structure with some sequences that you are obliged to have, like, you know, the police interrogator and everything like that. And we tried to cut! cut! cut! to arrive at the pure stuff. So it was already a game on the whodunnit structure.
On adapting Let The Corpses Tan
BF: After, for Let The Corpses Tan, there was that book, with its story of guys who rob guards, and it becomes a siege scenario. There are two writers [of the 1971 novel]. One is called Jean-Patrick Manchette. He’s dead. And Jean-Pierre Bastid, who is still alive – he is 80 years old now. Jean-Patrick Manchette was kind of the pope of neo-noir. It was a new kind of hard-boiled literature in the 70s. More political, more behaviourist, and a lot of his books were adapted in France with Alain Delon in the Eighties. And now the last one was The Gunman [Pierre Morel, 2015], with Sean Penn. Jean-Pierre Bastid worked on Dupont Lajoie [The Common Man, Yves Boisset, 1975], it’s a big-grossing movie about French racism in the Seventies in the south of France. It’s like anarchist, hard-boiled police literature, and so it reminded us a lot of the Italian western, which is a kind of anarchist genre – because, when you watch American westerns, it’s like, there is the good and the bad, the sheriff and the Indians. In the Italian ones, everybody‘s bad.
HC: Our first movies were such personal things that finally we were fighting a lot – like in this movie, but in real life. And we needed a subject that wasn’t from us. I have been wanting to adapt this book for ten years, and it was a good time to work on something that was literary.
BF: It is not an intimate book. But we did not want to do just a siege movie. It means for that [reason] I wasn’t so excited to do Let the Corpses Tan, because for me it was too linear. With respect to Amer and Strange Colour, there wasn’t the labyrinthic aspect.
HC: In the book, Luce [played by Elina Löwensohn] is a secondary character. But we both wanted her to be central, because it’s through her that we can bring our own universe in the story.
BF: Yes, because the book was a very male universe, and through Luce’s art universe we have found a gate for our odd points of views, and to make something male and female, and to make the violence like a performance, and to have a singular point of view on the gunfights, because we are not big fans of gunfights. I like to watch gunfight movies, but as a director, it’s not something that I like. It was a very masculine book, and through the character of Luce we have found a way to put a feminine protagonist in who is not like Jason Bourne, but something totally different, and to feminise that very male story.
HC: It was important for us.
BF: When we said we want to do this movie, we have seen a film from a director from Wales, which is called The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011), and after I have seen this movie, it was very sensual for me, it was very hard to say that we were going to do an action movie, because for me it was like the top of the top, and hard to do something better, we can’t do something better – so we went in another way, and we tried to keep our style from Amer and Strange Colour.
On sound design
HC: Since our first short film, we don’t record direct sound on the set. So, after the editing – the editing is totally mute, like for an animated movie – we begin sound recording with the foley guy, and it was two weeks, really intensive, just recreating all the sounds. It’s very important work, because each sound is a lot of layered sounds, in fact – so for one sound, maybe ten layers. And then there is three months of synchronisation, of sound editing, to balance, to try to…
BF: …to make it sensorial…
BF: …because we like it to have, like, a physical impact. So it’s very exhausting to work on that, because during the day you hear pow! pow! pow! pow! pow!, and we try to feel it in the guts and in the belly, and you begin to be deaf in fact – and with the sound we try to add that physical experience, this sensorial experience that you can have only in the theatre. It’s great, because as you don’t have the music ensemble on the image, you have a real rhythm just for the images, something very musical, and then when you do the sound work after that, it becomes like arithmetic, and it gives something more to the sound. It’s not like a film music, you know, where you put in the music, and you edit on the music. You edit just on the image, and after, you put in the music and the sound. We see if it works on the mute editing, we put in the music and we see if it works.
HC: We have all the [track] titles in our head before the script, because we were inspired by the music to write the scenes.
On the location of Let The Corpses Tan
HC: It was in Corsica, in the north, near Calvi. It’s a little village, abandoned.
BF: Yes, since last century. The last inhabitants left in 1920. In fact there is no road to go to this village. You have to go by foot. And so, when we have discovered this village – for we had seen, for one and a half years, a lot of villages in Italy, in Sicily, in the south of France, in Spain – this one was very particular because there was the sea, and the other ones didn’t have the sea, they had grey rocks on grey mountain, whereas this one you have blue, green, and the rocks were ochre, and it was like the western that we want. The desert was the sea, and we loved that idea. When we had seen it, I said to Hélène, “This is the place.” It was complicated, but elsewhere we never found such a place, so with the producer we decided to shoot there, and so to bring the cars and the motos and the materials, we had to bring them by helicopter before the shooting, so we had to be very, very, very much prepared because we couldn’t miss a detail. And after the shooting, the helicopter came and brought all of it back.
On the future
BF: So we have two projects. One is an animated film. A Canadian producer had bought the rights of the book [Iris] from a female writer of the Fifties [Iris Owens]. She’s one of the first feminist writers, an American, she’s part of the Beat generation, and she had written some books for adults, like pornographic books. He proposed the book to us to do a live-action movie, but when we read it, first it wasn’t interesting for us to do in live action, because there are a lot of sexy sequences, but a lot of voice-over, and what is interesting is not the sex sequences but what is inside, what [the protagonist] feels inside, and we thought that through animation we can break the limit of the body, and try in a new way to approach eroticism and sex in the movies, and we thought a lot about Belladonna of Sadness [Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973]. It’s very exciting, because with animation it’s a new way to think about découpage – storyboard – and when you do live action you’re always a prisoner of the physical universe’s conditions. Here we thought we might open a few doors maybe, I don’t know.
© Anton Bitel