Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's three features and seven short films are instantly identifiable. Their razor-sharp precision of composition, editing, and sound design, inspired by classic Italian genre cinema, has resulted in singular works of cinematic art as divisive as they are sensual. We talked to the French filmmaking couple at Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinema, where they presented all of their films in a series of special screenings.
How did you two come to make movies together?
Bruno Forzani: Love.
Hélène Cattet: Oh, that’s beautiful. Wow, so romantic.
BF: Seventeen years of terrible love. We became a couple in 2000, and a month later we made a gore movie in Helene’s basement. I was a big fan of Dario Argento...
HC: And I loved experimentation - like La Jetee.
BF: So it was a weekend, and we said “why don’t we do a short film?” because the DOP had the lights for the weekend. We wrote a little script on the Friday night, and we made a kind of mix of our two universes. It had the lighting and murder of giallo, and it was shot with slides like La Jetee. And that was the beginning of our collaboration.
Had you been filmmakers prior to that?
BF: No. Me, I was a cinephile.
HC: And me, I just wanted to make movies because I liked that way of telling a story. I wanted to find a way to express myself, and cinema was the best medium for me. I wanted to experiment.
Your films are quite different to most - very experimental, very visually driven. When you’re starting a project, do you start with a script, or with storyboards, or…?
HC: When we are writing the script, it’s images that are coming. It’s not words, but images and sounds. So we transcribe that.
BF: For me, I look back at the three features we’ve made. Amer was a short film that Helene had written - the central part, with the teenager and the mother. We didn’t want to make any more short films, and we couldn’t make it with our own money, because it was too expensive. And so we said - the theme of this short was the discovery of desire and body, and so on. Why don’t we do a childhood part and the adult part to talk about this theme? For Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, it was a deconstruction of whodunit storytelling to do something more like “who am I” than “whodunit.” And for Let The Corpses Tan, it was the book - the book reminded us a lot of Italian Westerns and Poliziotteschi movies. So it’s different each time.
Given how precise and crafted your films are, is there any element of on-set experimentation?
HC: No experimentation on set. No no.
BF: We try to tell our story through cinematographic tools. So to tell the story, we think about it six months, nine months before shooting. Each shot is like a word of a sentence, and the film is the sentence. So each shot has its own importance - each sound too. The aesthetic, the form is visceral. You think a lot about it. It’s not meaningless. It’s not just beautiful images that say nothing; it’s images that tell you something. So if we go on set and go, “oh, let’s do it like this, or like this, or like this,” it’s meaningless. We do a lot of shots, but each shot is used in the edit, and each shot has its own importance. And it’s like that that we tell the story.
Do actors ever get confused or freaked out by that way of working?
HC: Yeah! For this movie, it was okay, because we had already made two features. So the actors trusted us. They just went, “okay, let’s go.” But for the previous films, it was different, because the professional actors sometimes felt like puppets. Because it’s not the camera that’s following them, it’s them who have to follow the camera. So they were totally lost.
BF: But this time it was very easy. Because they’d seen the two previous films, and they liked that universe, and wanted to be part of it, and they were very open-minded.
Have you found that your creative approach has changed in moving from shorts to features?
BF: No, not really. With our shorts, for instance, we didn’t record live sound, so we’ve always worked with sound in post-production - we’ve kept that. It gives us a lot of time to be efficient in the shooting, because you can do more shots. The way we shoot with closeups, we’ve kept that too. At first, it was because we didn’t have enough money to have a nice set, but it gives something special - very intimate with the characters, very visceral, very based on the senses. So we kept that close-up stuff too. And with the slide approach in the short films, the camera was static. We kept that too - there’s not so much camera movements. Maybe in this one there’s a bit more.
HC: It’s the same methodology, but the universe is a little bit different. With this movie, as it’s an adaptation, the original material wasn’t from our universe. But I think we managed to put our touch on this material.
How did you come to adapt that particular book?
HC: It was ten years ago. I was working in a bookshop, and it was there that I discovered Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is very famous in France. It’s his first novel - he co-wrote it with Jean-Pierre Bastid. I read the novel, and it was really inspiring - a real Western atmosphere. I told Bruno to read it, and I told him, “if one day we make an adaptation, this novel is really interesting.”
BF: It was interesting, because it was very cinematographic. The storytelling is based on time and space, and for cinema, those are very big elements. When I read it, I wanted to do it, but after we finished Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, we were using a kind of storytelling labyrinth, like Satoshi Kon - the director of Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue. We were using that kind of storytelling, with different layers. And the novel was a bit more straightforward, and I was scared of that. But when we began to write the adaptation, we got a lot of pleasure out of it.
What do you feel that paying such strong homage to Italian genre cinema says for cinema today?
BF: For us, it’s not homage. We use vocabulary from genre films. We use codes, and maybe it seems like homage because giallo and Italian westerns are genres of mise-en-scene. You have Dario Argento in one and Sergio Leone in the other, and they’re genres very linked to the mise-en-scene - to the graphic shots, to the music, to a certain kind of violence. So for us, it’s not homage or pastiche; it’s just that we tell our stories through these codes, and this vocabulary. It’s reminiscent of films that we’ve seen a lot of times that gave us a lot of pleasure. We have fake memories of those movies, because we imagine scenes maybe bigger than what they really are. We don’t try to redo the same thing, but just to get the feeling of those kinds of movies. We want to give pleasure to the audience, to bombard them, to give them a kind of ecstasy.
Your films are super tactile, sensual, almost sexual. What’s your approach to doing sensuality on screen?
BF: We want to immerse the audience in the movie. With desire and sexual attraction, being very close up is something linked to intimacy, in sound and in visuals. It’s a way to immerse the audience in the movie - to have feelings, to be attracted and repulsed, to play with opposite feelings and to have something a bit special. You don’t just watch the movie.
I always feel kind of dirty afterwards.
BF: Well, you know. When I was a teenager, I loved horror movies. I discovered that Italian movies were very different from American movies. Because in the way they use violence and eroticism, it was totally free, totally instinctual. There wasn’t any moral aspect. It was something very bestial, very strong. And I liked it, the first time I discovered it. Seeing Tenebre for the first time, it was amazing - something very different. And it’s like that in Italian horror movies, or South American horror movies, or Spanish horror movies - it’s very Latin. It was part of the culture in paintings already - it’s not just exploitation, it’s part of the culture. But that’s a long story.
The way you shoot things feels very obsessive. What are your obsessions?
BF: The obsession is to give pleasure to the audience.
HC: And to give them a sensation.
BF: We are very generous. When we work on a movie, we think a lot about the effect we can achieve. Each day, we do 30 shots, and we try to do each movie like it’s our last movie. We had a change in our lives - before, we did something else, then we got this chance to direct. It’s like a dream come true, and we don’t want to waste that dream, so we go at 100 - 200 percent, each time. What we try to reach is a state of ecstasy. It’s like a little orgasm we give the audience. Our obsession is to make movies. It’s just that!
Looking forward, what cinematic goals do you really want to realise? What do you want to do next?
HC: We have a lot of goals. In fact, in each movie, I want to explore another thing. With each movie, I want to learn something. For example, our next project will be an animation…
HC: Anime. [At the masterclass that afternoon, this was expanded to “porno anime”.] So that’s another change, because we don’t know anything. But we love that kind of challenge. This time, it was a challenge, because we’d never made gunfights or special effects - we learned a lot.
BF: One other goal is to make the third part to Amer and Strange Colour.
Finally - if you weren’t making films, what would you be doing?
HC: Probably photography, for me.
BF: Maybe in a restaurant.
HC: Eating in a restaurant?
BF: No, to do something with a food I like.
HC: To cook?!
BF: No, to have someone who cooks very well, to have a nice place...in fact, before directing, I was in hospitality. I hated it. I don’t want to do it anymore, but if I changed, maybe I’d do something with one meal I like - to do just that meal. To have a little shop or something.
HC: Something easy to cook.
Good answer! Thanks for chatting, and I hope your screenings go great.