Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani explain that their modus operandi is to tell stories “in a sensual, physical way,” ensuring that they are enjoyed “as an experience” by its spectator.1 Rather than being concerned with narrative coherence or overt intellectualisation of their films’ content, Cattet and Forzani foreground the sensual and the affective as the primary source of meaning. Perhaps the filmmakers say it best when they categorise their films as forms of “sensorial experimentation”.2 Inspired by the baroque pleasures of Italian giallo horror, Cattet and Forzani bathe their images in iridescent coloured lights that snare the eye, while textured soundscapes and dynamic camerawork – often altering between floating, spectral movements and choking close-ups – demand an embodied response from its spectator. In doing so, Cattet and Forzani’s films form particularly apposite case studies for phenomenological film criticism. The most useful forms of film-phenomenology are those influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s treatise on perception and language, a philosophy and research methodology that demands critical reflection on lived experience.3 As Vivian Sobchack explains, film-phenomenology is predicated on the “phenomenological reduction,” a systematic process of description that “focuses attention on the conscious experience of phenomena as it is immediately given”.4 In doing so, the critic sets asides or “brackets” any presuppositions one may have (such as expectations regarding film conventions, or what it is “about”) to directly examine phenomena as they appear. Finally, the phenomenological method calls for interpretation that “[reveals] the meaning of the phenomenon as it is lived meaningfully” by the critic.5
Although its running time lasts mere minutes, Cattet and Forzani’s short film O is for Orgasm (2012) acts as a tutor text for the kind of “sensorial experimentation” that typifies their creative practice. O is for Orgasm (hereafter O) forms part of The ABCs of Death, a horror anthology that unites a diverse collection of international directors in their ability to disgust, amuse, and – perhaps most importantly – provoke its audience. O certainly is provocative as the film documents a sadomasochistic sequence that includes the erotic asphyxiation of a woman that (perhaps) ends in her death. But besides its confronting subject matter, O keenly lends itself to a phenomenological analysis as it purposefully lacks both visual and narrative clarity. That is, the spectator (at times quite literally) is “kept in the dark” regarding the truth behind the violently erotic acts that are performed on screen. Is she fatally choked by a leather belt during sex? Or is the violence wrought against her body merely all in her head? In crafting such an ambiguous space, O forces spectators to “make sense” of O through their entire sensorium, an experience of disturbing pleasure.
For instance, O’s frequent cutting, obscure framing, and bizarre imagery are certainly destabilising, comprising of an astonishing series of shots that, for example, juxtapose the plastic skin of a child’s doll with yielding flesh; black leather gloves and tobacco embers; and a vortex of colour that whirls on the skin of a bubble with a spinning kaleidoscopic pattern that fractures the screen. Further, many shots are an extreme illustration of what Richard Misek describes as “color monochrome”6 in which the image is desaturated and then digitally washed in a single hue, here a seemingly random pattern of poison green, hellish red, and peacock blue. In sum, although O overtly solicits the spectator’s eye, its optical play ensures that the spectator does not maintain a sure grasp of the image. But, perhaps with some irony, the appeal to the spectator’s “grasp” is O’s ultimate desire. This is made clear when O’s stylised shots are contrasted with those that do give spectators a clear look at the action, so to speak. Well-lit against a black background, we see the woman as she reclines against a black leather chair and opens her legs for a man’s mouth, and her face as she orgasms. But while these shots may adequately convey the effect of pleasure as it grips her body, they are no match for the expressionistic devices that more concretely attune us to the affect of her experience. Thus, while the film’s mannerist colour and strange imagery may be dizzying, such disorientation more tangibly connects us with the sensual rush experienced by O’s female character, and her loss of control as she gives her body over to pleasure and the touch of another.
O’s desire to affectively convey the woman’s sensuous and tactile experience is also expressed through its soundscape. As Sobchack explains, the phenomena under examination must be “horizontalized” to unpick any “hierarchies of significance” that contribute to its structure.7 That is, although O’s imagery is certainly richly evocative, it is equally important to not overlook its use of sound. Attending to O’s soundtrack reveals how it complements its tightly framed imagery with acoustic close-ups, requiring careful phenomenological description to reveal its sonic textures. For example, a thickly wet plopping sound accompanies a shot that caresses the edge of a bubble, while the dryness of threads of tobacco is accented with a scratching crackle as they burst into flame. Perhaps most pronounced of all are those sounds that emphasise the friction between the elasticity of the skin and unyielding leather. The leather chair, for instance, groans as the woman moves in pleasure, while a leather glove creaks as it rubs against her thigh. Combined with acoustic close-ups of bubbles that burst like cracking whips, the woman’s increasingly ragged breathing that invites the spectator’s own breath to be felt in the throat, and a pervasive rumbling bass that is palpably felt in the guts, O’s soundscape is remarkably tactile.
A phenomenological approach to O reveals that Cattet and Forzani consistently strive to affectively address their spectator by appealing to their entire sensorium. But that is not to say that the film dictates a particular response, or that all spectators respond to O in the same manner. For instance, although Cattet and Forzani’s clashing use of colour may evoke the sensual fullness of orgasm, it operates in a different way to the blooming pastels that express the orgasms of Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) in Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990). So too does it remain unclear whether the acoustic close-ups of rubbed skin and ragged breath stimulate erotic intimacy or fear and repulsion (or both) in spectators. Nonetheless, O’s address to the materiality of spectator’s body and its “provocation” of affect remains at its core. Indeed, as Cattet and Forzani claim, they want their films to “penetrate people,” thus “[playing] with very strong feelings of attraction and repulsion”.8 Thus the “sensorial experimentation” that characterises Cattet and Forzani’s oeuvre certainly complements the “sensorial experimentation” that grounds film-phenomenology. The value of a phenomenological analysis of film lies in its ability to intimately describe the “general or possible structures and meanings that inform the experience and make it potentially resonant and inhabitable for others”.9 As O requires the critic to think through their bodies, it offers an exquisite reminder of the value and complexities of sensory scholarship.
- Virginie Sélavy, “Interview with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani,” Electric Sheep Magazine, 10 April 2014, http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2014/04/10/interview-with-helene-cattet-and-bruno-forzani/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- See Alan Casebier’s Film and Phenomenology: Toward a Realist Theory of Cinematic Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) that applies Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology to film analysis, and Anna Powell’s Deleuze and Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005) and Eugenie Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) for Deleuzian perspectives. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 43. ↩
- Sobchack, p. 48. ↩
- Richard Misek, Chromatic Cinema: A History of Screen Color (Malden: Blackwell, 2010), p. 165. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, “Phenomenology” in The Routledge Companion to Film and Philosophy, Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga, eds. (London: Routledge, 2010): p. 436. ↩
- Quoted in Sélavy. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 5. ↩