The strange cinematic experiments of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani grow over the graves of departed genres. Their shorts and their first two features are loving pastiches of giallo, that lurid Italian detective mystery genre which peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s, while their latest feature appropriates its modalities from the Spaghetti Western and the poliziotteschi (or Euro-crime). All three of these genres are now passé, which is to say that their tropes have become canonised as dead languages of cinema, long since fallen into disuse, yet still available for the postmodern expression of ideas. While the films in such bygone genres have at times taken very complicated positions on gender, the voices behind these genre languages have been singularly male. Although Dario Argento’s partner Daria Nicolodi co-wrote his Suspiria (1977), and no doubt contributed to several other gialli by him – and Nora Orlandi wrote scores for several gialli, including some repurposed by Cattet and Forzani – no classic giallo was directed by a woman. You will likewise struggle to find female directors of Italian westerns or crime pictures.
Cattet and Forzani change this. A couple (like Argento and Nicolodi) in real life as well as joint writers and directors of all their films, they regender the grammar of their adopted genres by articulating them in a creative exchange between the sexes. Their earliest shorts – Catharsis, Yellow Chamber, The End of Our Love, The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow, Santos Palace and O is for Orgasm (in the anthology The ABCs of Death, 2012) – tend to alternate between male and female subjects and to confuse gendered identity. Their first two features, Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), form a kind of female-male diptych of dark psychosexual interiority.
Amer traces three transformative episodes in the life of Ana: her first childish encounters, enhanced by a vivid imagination, with sex and death; the repression of her burgeoning teen sexuality by her jealous mother; and her conflicting adult fear and desire towards men, unfolding in sexualised murderous fantasy – or is it reality? Ana’s whole existence seems subject to the male gaze: the family patriarchs whose glowering visages adorn paintings all over her late grandfather’s villa; or the dead-eyed glare of the grandfather himself; or the leers of the neighbour, the driver of a passing car, the grocer and his son, the young rebellious bikers, the taxi driver, and the two garbage collectors, all – at least in Ana’s imagination – ogling and undressing her with their eyes. Yet the film’s point-of-view here belongs entirely to Ana, who peeks through keyholes, beholds forbidden sights, stares longingly from the shadows, and – in a brilliantly cut coda – sees even beyond death. Under Ana’s confused scrutiny, it is men, in all their brooding sweat, sharp stubble and creaking leather, who are reduced to fetishised objects. By the time all the probing eyes on the paintings have been slashed, the tables have truly been turned on the male gaze, and Ana’s own unreliable point of view, in part an internalised and sexually reappropriated male gaze, and in part her forbidden dreams of rapture, has taken over.
Amer‘s complementary follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears shifts to middle-aged Dan Kristensen and his male perspective. Right from the opening scene in which we see Dan nodding off on a plane, there is the suggestion, as in Amer, that all the film’s surreal events might be unfolding in the turbulent clutter of the protagonist’s subconscious. For, like a gendered inverse of Ana, Dan both desires and fears the opposite sex, and his negotiation of the space between them keeps leading him right back to the repressed primal scene which, when he was a little boy, engendered his gynophobia – all in an art deco apartment building whose holes and cracks, hidden recesses and secret passageways, and entrances (sometimes locked, sometimes open) offer an architectural blueprint for the female anatomy over which Dan feels so conflicted. On the one hand, Dan appears to be stuck with himself and his own unresolved childhood traumas in a nightmarish echo chamber of errant masculinity. Accordingly, Dan’s search for his missing wife, Edwige, is a solipsistic, schizophrenic self-investigation, where the detective who assists him is also his double, and where, in one memorable slasher sequence, Dan is forced all at once into the roles of voyeuristic eyewitness, hapless victim and sadistic killer. Yet on the other hand, Dan’s story keeps being interpenetrated by other stories told about, and often by, women – stories that both refract and feminise his masculine anxieties. Indeed, Dan repeatedly finds himself overpowered and outclassed by strong, dominant women whose blood flow, indeed whose very nature, he both longs, and fails, to staunch or suppress.
In Let the Corpses Tan (2017), armed robbers use the dilapidated seaside digs of some bohemian artists as their hideout, when the arrival of two leathered-up motorcycle cops leads to an anarchic shootout. In adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s hypermasculine 1971 novel, Cattet and Forzani have also shifted the character of Madame Luce from the margins to the centre, making her perverse mistress of ceremonies over all the macho mayhem. Everyone here, whether male or female, watches everyone else in a crossfire of violently desirous gazes; but as the men play with their guns, it is Luce – their putative tool, hostage and victim – who refuses to be objectified or controlled. On the contrary, utterly fearless and perfectly in tune with the chaos all around, Luce imposes her very own sado-sexual fantasy on events, and ends up getting exactly what she wants and orgasming so hard that she – alone of all the characters – wishes that the night would “last forever”. Her view – her female gaze – transforms all this leaden machismo into pure, liquid gold. For in this manliest of shoot-em-up genres, Cattet and Forzani have let a woman come on top.