Written and directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s debut feature Amer explored a young woman’s sexual awakening using traditional giallo tropes. An exercise in formalism, it treated giallo as pure aesthetic: a cinematic language with the potential to go beyond its usual generic applications. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, reportedly 11 years in the making, represents another stage in the development of this idea. More familiar yet more oblique, it plunges us into a surreal world where giallo is the only code of understanding, eschewing narrative in favour of startling images, symbols and style.
The premise, however, is a conventional one. Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) returns home from a business trip to find his wife missing and the door locked from the inside. Seeking help from his neighbours, he visits a mysterious woman in his apartment building, who tells him about her husband’s recent disappearance and some dark figures operating between the walls. An Italian detective joins the investigation and Kristensen’s landlord gets drawn into the puzzle, but we get no closer to any kind of resolution. The plot is not so much labyrinthine as kaleidoscopic. It twists and splinters into subplots, dreams and hallucinations, leaving Kristensen battling against his increasingly disordered mind and the relentless brutality of the genre.
While the cinematic style, replete with extreme close-ups, gaudy colours, quick cutting and generic images, is drawn almost exclusively from giallo, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is essentially an experiment in arthouse surrealism. Ensconced as it is in the themes, symbols and sound of that great period of Italian cinema, when Argento, Fulci and Morricone were at their prime, Cattet and Forzani are trying to create something quite different from the same starting point. They distort and obscure the relationship between the image (or sound) and reality, and, in doing so, build a vague world of psychosexual connotations. In a giallo, a murder is always a murder, even if, as is often the case, it represents something more. In this film, the depiction of a murder does not necessarily signify a murder at all and to take anything at face value is seriously missing the point.
As their emphasis on style over substance suggests, Cattet and Forzani are also concerned with the filmmaking process, the capture, production and manipulation of images, as well as the psychological realism of the end result. One sequence depicts a bearded man, situated within the walls of the apartment building, taking photographs of a woman being murdered through the erotic play of a knife. This scene is repeated throughout the film, including at the very beginning, in rapid black and white stop motion. However, here we are shown a number of different versions, which bring into question the authenticity and meaning of the images. The film cuts from live action to negative exposure to film stock to photograph, while the bearded man and the viewer become increasingly disorientated. At what point is the image most concrete and why does its meaning differ from frame to frame? Like Peter Strickland’s recent Berberian Sound Studio, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears veers close to meta-film, as it rigorously dissects the components of giallo and reworks them, attempting to divulge their primal or archetypal implications.
Sex and violence are inherently linked, as is the case in the genre films, although Cattet and Forzani are more explicit and provocative than their predecessors. Recurring images include knives running over nipples, euphemistic stab wounds, sexual fantasies involving the killer’s leather gloves and blades used for both literal and figurative penetration. Exploring this theme more abstrusely, we see seductresses shattering into glass, murders committed by doppelgangers and blades emerging from inside bodies. This tapestry of sadomasochism suggests infidelity, guilt and loss, as well as the implicit violence inherent in the relationships depicted on screen. The magnificent art-nouveau Brussels apartment building, with labyrinths between its walls, connects the film’s multifarious segments, adding elements of surveillance and secrecy to the mosaic of the plot. Kristensen must break down walls, both interior and exterior, in order to discover what has gone wrong at the basest level and see if he is able to retrieve what he has lost.
As with Amer, the most rewarding aspects of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears lie in the style, which has clearly been evolving over a number of years. The framing and shot design is elaborate and consistently pays off – much credit must go to cinematographer Manuel Dacosse for this. However, the film as a whole is an alienating experience, an overload of vivid images and harsh sounds. It is heartening to see a new wave of innovative filmmakers, like Cattet, Forzani and the aforementioned Strickland, contributing to a revival of interest in this dying genre. However, the potential, which is clearly there, to make a coherent film that works on its own merits has yet to be realised. Giallo is a distinct aesthetic which is ripe for exploitation, but, while The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is intelligent, original and undeniably stylish, it gets far too immersed in this idea to truly succeed.
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