Disembodied voices that strain to conjure a melody; atmospheric percussion that sends a shiver through the soul; slithers of lounge guitar and sensual strings that alternately console and terrify: the sound of the giallo film score is as arresting as the leather gloves, knives, sex, and blood of its onscreen imagery. The Italian genre cinema of the 1960s and 1970s produced a school of inventive, predominantly Italian composers who were adept at fusing the sounds of contemporaneous prog-rock and pop music with their traditional compositional training and jazz influences. Explorations were made into new sonic landscapes and experimentation was undertaken with instrumental timbre, and from all this materialised a series of rich musical tapestries that served to heighten and fortify the cinematic images they accompanied.
The scores of composers such as Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai have remained popular decades after they were written and, testament to their autonomous strength, have thrived when separated from the context of their original films. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are fans, and in their feature films Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps, 2013), and Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017) they have showcased an array of cues sourced from such scores. Aside from a re-scoring of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears curated by electronic artist Blanck Mass in 2015, only two of their short films – Chambre jaune (Yellow Chamber, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani 2002) and Santos Palace (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2006) – feature newly-composed music written by Emmanuel Godinot, and even then, its usage is minimal. The pair have approached music in a way similar to their treatment of thematic material and mise-en-scène within their films, looking to the classic Italian genre films of the 1960s and 1970s for influence and inspiration. They absorb and employ the scores of these films not merely for the purpose of pastiche or homage, but to recontextualise them, and the repurposed cues are thus reinvigorated when paired with fresh new imagery.
The pair’s first feature Amer opens with shots of blinking eyes alongside the film’s credits and is soundtracked with Bruno Nicolai’s ominous main theme from the giallo thriller La coda dello scorpione (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Sergio Martino, 1971). An unending, broken-chord motif on mandolin creates a sense of urgency through its lack of resolution, accompanied by a repetitive bass motif that mimics a nervous heartbeat. Periodically, a menacing, electrified tone rips through the soundtrack like a monstrous growl. On screen it is revealed that a young girl is travelling in a car to a grand estate situated by a shimmering sea. But it is not as luxurious as it seems. As her car approaches the looming villa the heartbeat bass quickens, mirroring the girl’s anxiety over her destination, and as she passes through its gates it’s as if the electrified growl is emanating from the villa itself, implying that a malicious force is lying in wait. Martino’s music has been transformed through Cattet and Forzani’s appropriation, taking on a supernatural quality and transcending its giallo origins.
Later, a similar musical recasting occurs. The girl (who we now know is named Ana) has become a woman and has returned to the abandoned villa of her childhood. As she passes through its wild and unruly gardens, the flora become animated and responds to Ana’s presence, caressing her body, piercing her skin, and catching her hair on their thorns. Accompanying Ana in her trek through the undergrowth is Ennio Morricone’s sensual cue “Un uomo si é dimesso” from the giallo film Black Belly of the Tarantula (La tarantola dal ventre nero, Paolo Cavara, 1971). Originally used in a domestic scene in that original film, the cue now evokes Ana’s sensuality and emphasises her attraction and connection to the imposing villa through its twinkling harpsichord, sultry horn melody, and wordless vocalisations. Largely lost in the narrative of their original cinematic context, the eroticised breaths that permeate “Un uomo si é dimesso” are given greater prominence in the scene – they seem to be emanating from Ana herself.
In The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, Cattet and Forzani employ an intriguing selection of cues sourced from not only the scores of gialli, but also Italian drama and exploitation films. One of the most striking of these cues is “Erotico Mistico,” originally written by Ennio Morricone for use in Maddalena (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1971), an obscure film concerning a woman who becomes infatuated with a priest. Forzani explained in an interview in 2014 that it was the “most important” music to secure the rights to for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears because “it works with the film’s themes, in relation to fantasy.”1 “Erotico Mistico” opens with ritualistic drums and a woman’s moans of pleasure, eventually joined by a pipe organ and a small choir of male and female voices that offer a chant-like accompaniment. In Cattet and Forzani’s film the cue is heard several times, first when the film’s protagonist Dan smashes the tiles in his bathroom in order to get behind the wall, and then again when he passes through an esoteric red door in pursuit of both his missing wife and an enigmatic woman named Laura. The incessant bass drum kick and meditative vocals – the liturgical character that permeates Morricone’s music – all drive Dan in his quest for answers. Framed by a haze of kaleidoscopic stained-glass psychedelia, the implication of the cue is clear: Dan is no longer just an obsessive husband, he has transcended. Cattet and Forzani’s recontextualisation of Morricone’s Maddalena score has transmogrified the images on screen, elevating their murder mystery narrative into the realm of the spiritual.
Let the Corpse Tan once again draws from a diverse range of scores. Ennio Morricone returns, but also part of the film’s soundscape are strikingly distinct cues by other composers, including Christophe’s (aka Daniel Bevilacqua) glorious “Sunny Road to Salina” from Road to Salina (La route de Salina, George Lautner, 1970) and Nico Fidenco’s spooky disco cue “Zombie Parade” from Zombie Holocaust (Marino Girolami, 1980). “Sunny Road to Salina” is used prominently in the film, a wordless choir of voices leading the sprawling epic as it underscores flashbacks of a woman’s blackened silhouette framed by an azure sky; memories of past indulgences that took place on the cliffs of Corsica under the glare of a summer sun. The piece’s grandiosity emphasises the ecstasy of gold in all its forms, be it the gilded hues of sunlight or the coveted bars of gold that lead to the spilling of much blood (it is reminiscent of Morricone’s unforgettable “L’Estasi Dell’oro (The Ecstacy of Gold)” from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Sergio Leone, 1966). “Sunny Road to Salina” is the film’s theme song, its call to action. The piece even exists diegetically within the world of Let the Corpse Tan, emanating from a music box inside a jewelled ring, its tranquil tones offer comfort amongst all the chaos.
- Virginie Sélavy, “Interview with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani,” Electric Sheep, 10 April 2014, http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2014/04/10/interview-with-helene-cattet-and-bruno-forzani/. ↩