Our planet has provided the most beautiful and ever changing natural landscapes in the form of mountains, oceans, forests and deserts. Human beings remain astonished by these variegated marvels of nature, sculptured similarly on our faces through deep emotions … I like to make a 180-turn of my eyes away from these natural landscapes, and instead discover that humans offer the most interesting landscapes of all: these faces moved by natural, marvellous spectacles. Plains, mountains and oceans are all represented in the human face, with a range of refined variation that compete with the immensely spectacular representations that nature offers us on a gigantic scale.
– Luciano Tovoli1
In 2014, on interviewing Luciano Tovoli, the cinematographer responsible for the striking visuals that mark films like Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), this was his response when I asked how he approaches filming the human face. “A few inches of a tridimensional epidemic surface can express a thousand notes, related to a thousand emotions”, he added. “As a photographer first and later as a cinematographer, these facial landscapes are the ones I prefer.”
From this perspective, even the carefully selected Corsican setting of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017) struggles to compete with the landscape of actor Elina Löwensohn’s face, a filmic space where accrued time is powerfully represented. Let the Corpses Tan is instantly marked by striking visual imagery; a hill, the glaring sun, the barrel of a gun. A man can be seen behind the gun, but it is a woman’s face in extreme close-up that catches our breath: her eyes, her pores, her lines, the moisture on her tongue, the gaps in her teeth, her mouth in general as she gnaws on a cigarette. She does not hold the weapon, but it is she who is in control as she barks orders. She laughs, he shoots, and titles appear. She continues to smoke.
She is Luce, an artist played by Romanian-born Löwensohn. Let the Corpses Tan might be easy to simplify as a female-centred homage to Spaghetti Westerns; a notable deviation away from the giallo-centricism of Cattet and Forzani’s previous features Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. But like most things from this collaborative filmmaking team, surfaces can be alluringly deceptive. While the formal textures of Let the Corpses Tan might hold Spaghetti Westerns close, gialli have hardly been forgotten: this opening scene concerns Luce instructing her gunman how and where to shoot holes into her freshly painted canvas. While this spectacle of artillery-as-paintbrush recalls one of the most vibrant sequences of Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, 1971), giallo echoes throughout Let the Corpses Tan in other ways: black leather gloves still make an appearance, and the soundtrack includes Ennio Morricone’s haunting “Sola Grida” from Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972).
Filmed through one of three immaculately composed bullet holes, Luce is unhappy with the shooter’s work and complains simply: “too symmetrical”. A warning, perhaps, that it is best to steer clear from assuming this is just a neat game of intertextual winking. Cattet and Forzani do much more than riff or reward reference spotting. Rather, this film – like all their movies – ask something much more from us as an audience. They demand we look differently, think differently, and experience cinema differently. In Let the Corpses Tan, experiencing Löwensohn’s face as landscape as much as character is central to this.
Though her filmography is broad, from Seinfeld to Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux, 1998), Löwensohn’s face – framed by her signature Louise Brooks-style black bobbed haircut – is inscribed firmly in the collective cinephile consciousness through her numerous collaborations with U.S. indie darlings Hal Hartley and Michael Almereyda’s Another Girl Another Planet (1992) and Nadja (1994). In both of their films – as Sofia Ludens in Hartley’s 1994 film Amateur or as Dracula’s daughter in Almereyda’s Nadja especially – there’s an omnipresent perversity, that hovers aura-like around Löwensohn, defusing what for another actor could be mistaken for a patronising American depiction of Euro-quirkiness. It is Löwensohn’s face, the precision of her gestures, the intensity of her responsiveness, and the clip of her voice that forbid this.
Recently, as a collaborator with Bertrand Mandico, Löwensohn embodies how organically the seemingly natural can be corrupted, contorted into something often simultaneously exquisite and perverse. Sometimes this again is articulated through Löwensohn’s face, but often through her body more generally. In the shorts Any Virgins Left Alive? (2015), Our Lady of the Hormones (2015) and the feature The Wild Boys (Les Garçons Sauvages 2017), Löwensohn is a creature of nature. Mandico’s hyper-stylised experimentation with the textures of gender in the latter culminate nowhere more evocatively than in Löwensohn’s jewel-hungry, gender-fluid Séverin(e), who first appears emerging from the film’s strange tropical environment that grants her character an almost incandescent queerness.
Both The Wild Boys and Let the Corpses Tan debuted at Locarno in 2017, and both in their own unique ways hinge on Löwensohn’s body and the irresistible lure of her face-as-landscape. In their earlier collaboration, Mandico’s 2013 short Prehistoric Cabaret, Löwensohn’s burlesque performance centres around a bio-camera colposcopy where her psychedelicised innards provide the core spectacle, announcing to her audience “I’ll be your intimate landscape”. This phrase applies just as meaningfully to Let the Corpses Tan. As Cattet and Forzani move close – almost too close – to Löwensohn’s face, they create through the magic of her “intimate landscapes” a kind of conceptual wormhole to travel back in time through numerous flashbacks presented as erotic vignettes that mark Luce’s sexual past. Played by a young woman whose face is notably concealed by shadow almost all of the time, it is the older Luce – through the act of her remembrances – that we suture to those extraordinary sexual spectacles that provide some of the film’s most beautiful, perverse, and confronting imagery.
Like so many of her other characters, as Luce, Löwensohn’s face offers the perfect terrain for singular experiences and sensations to vicariously play upon, for an audience incapable of looking away. Less Laura Mulvey’s voyeuristic scopophilia than Tovoli’s concept of facial landscapes, Löwensohn’s is a captivating presence. Here and elsewhere, Löwensohn’s visage demands we acknowledge its own subversive potential: in Let the Corpses Tan, next to the parade of anxious men that permeate the film, her face is gleeful, laughing, and mocking. Working with filmmakers like Grandrieux, Mandico, and Cattet and Forzani who privilege texture above narrative, sensation above coherence, Löwensohn and her collaborators reveal just how potent a landscape of the human face can be.
- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Suspiria (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2015), pp. 84-85. ↩