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Filmmakers have paid homage to their influences since the beginning of the medium, but those efforts are typically in the service of telling a story that’s somehow new, original or contemporary - contemporary to the filmmakers, anyway. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let The Corpses Tan blurs the line between tribute and imitation, shamelessly aping the technique and style of their predecessors to tell a story that looks and feels like it could have come out of the Italian cinema of the 1970s, when nasty, experimental crime films were a dime a dozen. This sort of pastiche creativity can sometimes feel derivative, both in form and content, but in the hands of virtuosos like Cattet and Forzani, whose previous films include Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, the result is exhilarating both as a sun-kissed crime thriller and a gold mine for genre fetishists and anyone who gets a little too excited when a new movie does something you’ve always loved in old ones.
Grindhouse and the small collection of films that followed worked - for those who thought they worked - because they celebrated the creativity and technique of the exploitation pictures of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s; they also told fun stories, but there was an extra veneer of filmmaking applied to the outside that gave each of them a charm they wouldn’t otherwise have. In both Planet Terror and Death Proof, the films use static blocking and flat camera angles (among other tricks) for certain scenes, and then manipulate the rhythms of conversation and plot development through editing. (Both feature huge jumps that excise juicy content, and in the case of the former, essential plot details.) Corpses isn’t mimicking bad presentation or the cheap production values of the Italian crime films that inspired Cattet and Forzani, but it feels authentic nonetheless - the apotheosis of this technique, presenting a new film that feels like a pristine, unearthed print from that era.
Some of Corpses’ filmmaking techniques include: focus shifts. Oppressive close-ups. Sound drops. Provocative misdirection via editing - while one character is urged to fire a handgun, another feverishly runs from the camera. And that’s just during the opening credits! It’s startling to realize how many of these tricks have effectively been phased out of filmmaking style, partially because form has grown less important than content, and partially because audiences are more sophisticated, and sometimes jaded, than ever. Corpses’ opening scenes feature an orgy of style that not only once defined an aesthetic era but, irrespective of its technical bona fides, creates a mood. Extreme low and high angles turn women into goddesses, and men into ants; sharp contrasts between light and dark shroud and liberate the characters. Flat, amplified, unnatural sound design makes the audience feel like they’re trapped inside a crackling fire, or being eviscerated by a character casually biting meat from bone.
The cumulative effect of this is not just a cohesive vision from Cattet and Forzani, and an unsettling, vivid atmosphere where their story unfolds, but an invigorating, nostalgic experience (at least in 2018) for viewers who worship at the altar of Sergio Martino, Fernando Di Leo and Umberto Lenzi among many others. Working from a template that evokes Mario Bava’s underrated Rabid Dogs, it also delightfully traces a lineage through the work of other Italian filmmakers and genres, from the hazy psychedelia of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point to the irreverent humor of Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, exploring some of their ideas while exactingly reimagining hallmark imagery for a new context. From naked, gold-painted women enchanting and antagonizing the men around them to ants drowning in piss, its heavy-handed metaphors are a delightful feature, not a bug - even when they’re actual bugs.
Further, the music, largely cribbed from older scores by the likes of Stelvio Cipriani and Ennio Morricone (including one Tarantino used in Kill Bill Vol. 2), echoes the drama of a bygone generation of both composers and the soundscapes they once made. It is a complete work made from components of other films, be they concrete references, vague notions or just random generational boilerplate. Ultimately, Let The Corpses Tan is much more than a delightful anachronism, and it briskly transcends pastiche; Cattet and Forzani’s latest is a work of creative alchemy, weaving a magical, golden spell that enchants and confounds, slipping out of time to explore a narrative and aesthetic world whose time has passed but, cinematically speaking, feels perfect right now.