This dossier coincides with retrospectives of the work of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani at the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Queensland Film Festival in July and August, 2018. This dossier is also available in a book version via this link.
The debut feature by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani Amer (2009) opens with a series of split screens, rapidly collaging the eyes of the protagonist with the film’s title screen and credits, and various elements of the car journey towards the destination where the film’s enigmas unfold. Split screens permeate the pair’s 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) – sometimes to denote fractured identities, sometimes to suggest skewed perception, and sometimes simply because it looks exquisite.
Cattet comes from Paris while Forzani hails from Menton on the French Riviera. Meeting in Brussels – where they both now live and work – they have co-directed and co-written the screenplays for all three of their features (although Let the Corpses Tan is an adaptation of the 1971 crime novel of the same title, written by Jean Pierre Bastid and Jean-Patrick Manchette). Within their private language, surfaces are perhaps more significant in their work than that of virtually any other contemporary filmmakers working today – directors like Bertrand Mandico, Peter Strickland, Guy Maddin, and Lucile Hadžihalilović being rare exceptions. Beginning with their early short films – Catharsis (2001), Yellow Room (Chambre jaune, 2002), The End of Our Love (La fin de notre amour, 2003), and The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow (L’étrange portrait de la dame en jaune, 2004) – Cattet and Forzani experiment fearlessly with sound and vision as much as gender and narrative. The surfaces of Cattet and Forzani’s films either attract or repel, encouraging dedication or disgust, demanding opinion.
Sometimes the surface of a film is so immediately apparent that it thwarts deeper analysis. The works of Cattet and Forzani at first seem to mark out such a fully-formed world with their expansion and shattering of giallo iconography. They create an abstract flux that overwhelms narrative towards sensual interplay between eros and thanatos. Whenever Cattet and Forzani create new work, the question that invariably arises is how they will balance narrative with abstraction over the length of a feature film: Amer is split into episodes of the protagonist’s life, whereas The Strange Colours of Your Body’s Tears is seemingly an anthology of short stories, segmented like the apartments of the complex that the protagonist Dan (Klaus Tange) is searching through for his missing wife. However, Let the Corpses Tan, with its Spaghetti Western iconography, coherence around a single firefight, and its interpolation of golden chrysos into balance with eros and thanatos introduces a minor crisis into what constitutes Cattet and Forzani’s cinema, heralding another split. Its newfound diversity of forms, despite rooted in what came before, asks us to step back and question what truly unifies their work.
This collection therefore moves in two directions simultaneously, broadly discussing what erotics Cattet and Forzani’s cinema asks of our bodies-as-spectators, while also precisely analysing the filmmakers’ underlying approach to their influences. In the first part of this dossier, Christoph Huber, Anton Bitel, Jeremi Szaniawski, and David Richard all examine the new body offered by Cattet and Forzani, scrutinising how its seductive surface evokes and confounds meaning. Huber marks out their past, present and future from early primal gialli tributes to a proposed homage to Japanese erotica anime, and through this, maps out how their total cinema overwhelms us, inverting perception and cognition, exteriority and interiority to produce a language which arouses thought. Bitel considers the fluidity of gender across Cattet and Forzani’s film work, reflecting on their relationship as both partners and creative collaborators, and how this influences the gendered perspective(s) and the representation of sex and sexual difference in their filmography. Szaniawski imagines Cattet and Forzani’s body of work as a two-headed chimera, reflecting Hélène and Bruno’s own dialectical gestalt, but also their monstrous cinematic body jigsaw assembled from the surfaces of shattered genres, forever asking us to grope out its ever-twisting shape while we remain lost in the dark, looking for enlightenment. Informed by the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard focuses his attention on O is for Orgasm (2012), finding within its miniature crystalisation of the Cattet and Forzani’s shimmering surfaces and preoccupations, a model for how our own tactile perceptions and physical response becomes the starting point for cognition and understanding the shape of Cattet and Forzani’s cinema.
The second part of the dossier focuses on particular elements of specific films and motifs within Cattet and Forzani’s work. From surface to repressed depth, Michael Sicinski, Martyn Conterio, and Kat Ellinger examine hidden desires and primal urges. Sicinski analyses the opening episode and primal scene of their feature debut Amer, drawing on Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Gaze and its optical crisis in identifying both a key to the following dreams of Cattet and Forzani, and binding their vision to our world in its warning to women. Conterio and Ellinger then turn to the cinematic influences on The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears in particular. For Conterio, while the imprint of giallo cinema is certainly visible on the film, less acknowledged but just as significant are psychoanalytic, psychological film noirs such as Laura (Preminger 1944) and, particularly, Secret Beyond the Door (Lang 1946), both architechturalise the mind and memories. For Ellinger, while more familiar giallo auteurs as Dario Argento and Mario Bava are typically cited in reference to Cattet and Forzani, we also need to examine the precise influence of more niche giallo filmmakers. Identifying Sergio Martino’s gialli as a significant influence, particularly The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Ellinger maps out precisely how Martino has been magnified in Cattet and Forzani’s film. Clare Nina Norelli listens deeply to the soundtrack of Cattet and Forzani’s three features to uncover the precise way they reutilise music from earlier films, including those written by luminaries such as Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas then moves specifically to Let the Corpses Tan and the performative body of cult actor Elina Löwensohn, thinking through her presence as much as a ‘facial landscape’ as a character.
Finally, the dossier concludes with two interviews. Szaniawski speaks to Cattet and Forzani’s long-time producer Ève Commenge on collaborative producing, their filmmaking practice, and the movies themselves. Bitel then combines material from a public Q&A session held at London’s Institut Français Royaume-Uni in February 2018 and an in-person interview he conducted with Cattet and Forzani that winds its way through their past before pointing to questions their new work might pose.