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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.31.14] Belgium horror thriller giallo

With The Strange Color of Your Bodies' Tears, as with their previous film, 2009's Amer, directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have crafted an extraordinarily intense and striking visual experience, but one which is so completely void of depth and narrative structure that the average film-goer will likely find it a frustrating and ultimately patience testing affair. I wanted to like this film, and had hoped that Cattet and Forzani might have grown out of their tendency to simply pay homage to other directors' work at the expense of adding anything of their own to their films - a tendency which was exhibited so profoundly in Amer - but it was not to be. In their first film, we saw a paean to the giallo genre, specifically the thrillers of Dario Argento, but in 'Strange Color' it's as if they've opened the book on European film-makers of the 1960s and '70s, and simply cut and paste at their leisure, creating a giallo inflected Nouvelle Vague mystery which wears its influences front and centre, but never becomes more than the sum of its heavily mined parts. This is not to say that the film is without merit; it is a dazzling, psychedelic horror film, presented in layers as an odyssey into madness. However, without any kind of solid cohesion, its plodding and episodic nature, paper-thin plot, gleeful 'borrowing' from other films and distinct lack of characterisation makes it an experiment which totally shatters the test tubes. In many ways it feels like one of the most extraordinary train wrecks ever filmed.

The plot concerns a businessman, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange), who returns home to Luxembourg from a trip to Frankfurt, and is alarmed when he discovers his apartment empty and wife missing. During his flight he has experienced vivid nightmares of sexual violence in which his wife, Edwidge, is brutally murdered while in the throes of sexual passion, and now he suspects that his dreams were a premonition. He proceeds to drink heavily from a bottle of whisky and then begins tormenting his neighbours in an attempt to gain information about his wife's whereabouts. From here the story becomes fragmented, as Dan visits various residents of his tenement building, all of whom hold secrets, and the film flashes over their own stories based on their interpretations of the events leading to Edwidge's disappearance. In one apartment, Dan finds a lonely, witch-like widow called Dora, who explains that her husband has gone missing since investigating noises coming from another apartment. He had drilled holes in the ceiling to spy through, and had seen "eyes filled with madness" staring back at him. Dan goes to the roof and meets a naked woman called Barbara, with whom he holds a muted conversation as they smoke cigarettes. The sudden appearance of the enigmatic police detective Vincentelli heralds another flashback, this time to an investigation which focused on a depressed porno photographer whose wife went missing under similar circumstances. Dan is confused. Is he now a suspect? Has his wife run away with another man? How much do the neighbours really know? He finds a reel-to-reel recording which plays a spooky message in a warped voice, and which suggests that he is to be the next target of the killer's plans...

The above plot points take place early in the film, and the bulk of the running time is taken up by various, loosely connected vignettes in which Dan and Vincentelli wander around the building experiencing strange and surreal events. Cattet and Forzani quickly throw logic out of the window in favour of head-spinning camera angles, frantic editing, extreme close-ups, unpleasant violence and startlingly well crafted and colourful visual techniques, all of which suggest a slide into insanity and chaos for our leading man. The film uses imagery which will be familiar to anyone who enjoys Argento's work; there are frequent close-ups of eyes and shots of broken mirrors, children's dolls and menacingly sharp knives wielded by a mystery murderer wearing black leather gloves. So persistent are the references to Deep Red, Suspiria and Inferno, that we actually get tired of spotting them. Added to this are split-screen techniques which invite comparison with De Palma (there are several deliberate nods to Dressed To Kill) and a sense of claustrophobia and alienation reminiscent of Polanski's Repulsion. The characters' shifting identities and lack of 'self' bring to mind the work of David Lynch (although it feels like a cliché to even bring his name into a review these days, so ubiquitous is his influence) as it is suggested that Dan and Vincentelli may be the same person, and therefore may both be the killer seen lurking in the shadows and hiding inside the walls. (This actually made me think of the film-within-a-film from Spike Jonze's Adaptation, where a nonsensical script is mooted in which all the characters turn out to be the same person.) The directors' penchant for symmetry, along with the gorgeous Baroque and Art Deco designs of the building do make for some stunning scenes, and combined with the pounding soundtrack of prog-synth and bass guitar, the effect is impressive; we really feel like we're watching a '70s Italian genre film... But therein lies the problem.

When Dario et al. made their best films, the approach was absolutely considered: a focus on style and technique over narrative coherence and performance. This is why most (if not all) of Argento's films can be criticised for their wooden acting and patchy scripts, but the fact remains that the dream-logic and flamboyant design elements incorporated into these films, despite their grisly nature, contain a kind of charm and innocence. These were films being made by a director with a clear vision of his own - albeit one influenced by those, such as Mario Bava, who came before him, but they did not come across as studiously self-referential or -conscious. When placed next to the works they are paying tribute to, Cattet and Forzani's films appear empty and fake, even cynical. So enamoured are they with their heroes, they cannot resist aping the techniques favoured by these enduring cinematic figures, while, quite frankly, failing to add anything of their own into the mix. This would be fine if the film were stronger and more tightly controlled, but it is very slow to get off the ground, and really has no story and nothing underneath all of its gloss and clicks and whistles. Amer almost worked in terms of structure as it was split into three sections, following the journey of a disturbed girl into adulthood, but that film fell down as it was all style over substance, and its lack of dialogue made it an exhausting film to sit through. 'Strange Color' is a step upwards in some respects; it has slightly more interesting characters, an admirably confident attitude, exciting imagery and music, and bold, well executed sound design. Both films, however, seem snared in the same curious trap, and Strange Color especially feels like a film bogged down by its influences rather than utilising them as a conduit for creativity, and it becomes something of an overstuffed performance piece, as opposed to an entertaining feature film. In this sense it is actually a very irritating watch; five minutes is enough to get the idea, but an hour and forty minutes is almost excruciating.

In the last act of the film there are several scenes which directly reference Andrzej Żuławski's landmark psychological horror film Possession, and this was when I finally stopped making notes (my pad was a mess of scrawls, attempting to keep up with the plot) and just sat in a bemused stupor as the story spiralled into a delirious and incomprehensible jumble of maddening narrative twists and false endings. Rather criminal, considering how much emotional energy one has to spend on watching it. Also, crucially, it isn't in the least bit scary.

I do not know who I would recommend this film to. Probably nobody. On the most basic level it doesn't work as a feature film; there is no sense of authenticity to the characters and the film contains no solid ground from which to present itself, so everything which happens on screen is meaningless and we are kept constantly at arm's length, finding it impossible to engage with the material. As a work of art, it is beautifully designed, but so cold in its use of homage and wilfully fragmented structure - its obsession with celebrating other, better films - that we cannot take it seriously as a complete work in its own right. It is telling that Amer was so praised by Tarantino, a director whose cine-literate style and reverence for genre cinema has given him status as the ultimate fan-boy, but I would so much rather watch the real thing than someone else's rabid interpretation of another artist's style. The old ones are always the best ones. This one isn't even a good one.

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chaybee (8 years ago) Reply

Loved this film. It's a beautiful work or art along with their first feature; "Amer".


projectcyclops (8 years ago) Reply

I've often felt that 'good' art says something about the person who views it. All this film does is tell you about the people who made it.

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