Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani redefine the limits of cinematic grammar, and, further, of the cinematic body – a fascinating two-headed creature, with at its pulsating heart a manifest drive to pierce through surfaces and to burst out onto the open. This is instantiated at the level of diegesis in bodies and inanimate surfaces alike, allegorical of a constant impetus to crack, tear up and reshape cinematic surfaces, narration, and generic conventions: take but the female body emerging from that of the male investigator in one of the final scenes of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps, 2013), the artwork shot through with bullets in Let the Corpses Tan’s (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017) opening, or the many instances of cracking and shattering mirrors and panes of glass encountered throughout the oeuvre.
This explosive impetus has to do with more than just a desire for formal experimentation and to shock on the part of the two filmmakers, whose intricate dialectical creative dynamics – a gestalt of two minds for one body, as it were – proposes not only an original cinematic form, new representations of and relationship to the body, but also calls for new ways of perception on the part of the viewer. And indeed, the complex affect encountered here is very different from the jubilant regressive pleasure of the shredding, tearing and defilement of bodies encountered in Italian and Japanese genre cinema, which constitute the avowed master texts behind Cattet and Forzani’s meta- and intertextual experiments. The latter’s peculiar shape and preoccupation with affect, brains and body, definitely eschew any comfortable pigeonholing.
Gilles Deleuze taught us that there is a cinema leaning on the side of the brain, and another, on the body’s.1 And, the French philosopher adds, the former does not feel any less than the latter thinks. Cattet and Forzani propose a fascinating cinematic body which attempts to reconstitute itself, enabled and short-circuited at one and the same time by the two distinct brains governing it – a shared and mutable neuro-cortex producing an uneasy, contorted organism whose individual, vibrant chunks nonetheless pulsate with energy and long for an ideal form which must forever remain out of reach. Hence their aesthetic of fragmentation and masterplan, of sensorial seduction and deflagration.
In principle, the brain maps the universe, while the body apprehends it directly. With Cattet and Forzani, cognitive mapping is a constant challenge to the viewer, and the sensorial experience an unceasing onslaught. Therein lies the fascination of a carefully crafted, thought out, storyboarded, rehearsed cinematic world, which yet seems to constantly grapple in the dark, its digits encountering a wide variety of textures, as we, the viewers, enthralled and enraptured, having been thrown down this black hole, reach out, expecting to touch a soft and velvety cloth, only to have our fingers pricked by shards of glass. There is something erotic here, no doubt, a direct correlation of the scopic impulse and fetishism inherent to cinema, with the tools of sadomasochistic games proper (blindfolds, leather, hot wax and golden showers are all clearly featured in these films). This underlined sexual dimension to Cattet and Forzani, and the impact it has on cognitive mapping and the cinematic gaze, can be linked to a more feminine approach: as Luce Irigaray observes, a film’s emphasis on non-visual senses can be identified with female subjectivity:
The predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualization of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity. 2
Introducing Amer (2009), 3 the filmmakers explained that the film’s sound was mixed so as for the viewer to be inside the brain of the character, with the brain conceived of here as flesh, a vibrating and receiving tissue, rather than a mind disconnected from the body – inviting us to let go of our traditional apprehension of cinema through the intellect, and to instead investigate it through our five senses. After watching each of their films, the viewer is left with a strong somatic response, almost as though having experienced the traumas on the screen in their own flesh, but without the catharsis usually provided by narrative cinema. That part is denied, making the lingering somatic response all the more uncomfortable and fascinating.
But Cattet and Forzani’s films are just as sensorial/somatic/haptic as they are profoundly visual, and, despite their clear diegetic gesturing at female empowerment, may still be considered deeply masculine, in their work on an audio-visual gaze. What characterises this gaze is the fetishistic will to tear apart and pierce through, conferring onto these films a myopic quality, focusing on the close-up,4 and often using lenses with shallow depth of field. But this ‘myopic’ quality also appears in the opaque use of long shots. Think of the ruins in Let the Corpses Tan, and the fact that despite seeing them on occasion in wide shots, they forever remain a puzzle for the viewer. Likewise, the film’s plot (and narrative space) does not thicken – it melts down and dissolves almost literally, as liquid textures (paint, urine, molten gold, blood) coalesce into a solid block of unanswered questions and unmapped narrative space. Long shots never establish narrative coordinates that would help us follow or suture the space. We are, like the characters, lost in the hostile chaos of the bloody showdown. But Cattet and Forzani’s filmic gaze is not only unique because it is myopic: it is also outright schizoid.
The split subject was thematised rather unambiguously in Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, and the central perspective or gaze of Let the Corpses Tan seems to be multiple and non-human. Between the two poles of body and brain, Ego and Id, human and non-human, there is a dialectical counterweight and commingling in these films of directorial control and perfectionism, with openness, lack of determination of space and psychology –and the epistemic riddles which are the stuff of whodunnits and mysteries. Whodunnit indeed. This is the question their work begs at every corner, even as it hides behind at once highly conceptual and playful referentiality. An image of two fiendishly intelligent children playing with a jigsaw puzzle and yielding a monstrously creative patchwork comes to mind, assembling the pattern puzzle as they feel fit. The result springs from two filmmakers deeply invested in a dialectical process, replaying tropes and making them evolve before our eyes, but also deconstructing and reconstructing cinematic narration in the process. It would surely be less time-consuming to just slavishly arrange the jigsaw puzzle according to the reassuring master plan of cinematic suture, continuity editing, and catharsis. But Cattet and Forzani are not about reassuring us of anything, except of course of their commitment to radical and monstrous cinema – a two-headed creature with one body.
Cattet and Forzani, through their oeuvre of shattered surfaces and pierced membranes, evoke the rage of an impotent brain, turning inward against the body. Impotent because dissociated from a self – now two conflicted minds in one body of film. Yet it is also a miraculously productive self.5 Their cinema is not a labyrinth or riddle to be solved: it is a non-organic entity which grows, a monstrous inhuman creature, a compound of broken glass and torn flesh. It refuses to yield secrets, but procures awe and invites deeper and deeper investigation. The discursive – the empowered female subject, the living dead – are almost a footnote, though no less constitutive for all that. As for the inclination for the murder mystery, the giallo, the derivative and playful B-movies, it has to do at least as much with fandom, fetishism and guilty regressive pleasure as it does with the epistemic riddle of any whoddunit, whose deceptive fake leads, clues or unanswered questions cannot entirely conceal the rumbling noise of the undercurrent force: it lives and grows inside us, in our brains and body. One day, it will burst out, tearing up flesh and shattering bones, in a gesture of outward expansion. Only then, the filmmakers seem to tell us, will we be darkly enlightened.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – L’Image temps. Chapitre VIII. Cinéma, corps et cerveau, pensée. (Paris, Minuit 1985). ↩
- “Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp.25-26. ↩
- At the screening of the film at Walter Reade, New York, April 2010. ↩
- The majority of Amer’s 900 shots are close-ups (in part due to budgetary restrictions), and indeed the ratio of close-ups remains predominant in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears and Let the Corpses Tan. ↩
- Which all should try and go enjoy on 35mm and surround sound when and if possible… to fully appreciate its sensuous glory. There too, another body – the actual body of the celluloid film – plays a very important part, the cinema of Cattet and Forzani being inescapably associated with the corporeal, the physical, the bodily, the material. ↩