There have been complaints that the small-scale Belgian movie, Let the Corpses Tan, is difficult to follow. It’s not that complicated of a plot, even. To wit: criminals hide out in a bohemian community. The cops show up looking for someone else. Shots are fired, and everything goes sideways.
You get confused, though, because there is very little dialogue. the stylized filmmaking confuses a lot of things, like you don’t get a good idea what people look like because the camera is always zoomed in on their faces. So much of this movie is uncomfortable close-ups. You don’t even have a good idea if what’s being shown is reality, a flashback, or totally within a character’s imagination. I barely knew the names of any of the characters.
Yet I find all of the above to be a feature, not a bug.
Taken one way, Let the Corpses Tan, which is directed and written by French filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, is a tribute to the spaghetti western. The directors filmed in 16 mm, sampled Ennio Morricone tracks, and shot the movie around crumbling buildings on the sun-bleached beaches of Corsica to get that right feel of authenticity. I’ve already reviewed one spaghetti western tribute for this series — Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django — and found it mostly style over substance. I am pleased to say that I did not find the same issues with Let the Corpses Tan. The homages, which include tinges of giallo, work in service of the story. It makes you appreciate why Sergio Leone and Dario Argento’s outlandish creative flourishes and trademark visuals still work to this day. It’s not done for humor. It’s done because that garish and sometimes ponderous style is perfect for this story.
IMDB tells me that the woman at the center of this story, played by Romanian actor Elina Löwensohn, is named Luce. I don’t remember her being called that often, so I’m just going to refer to her as “the artist”. As the movie opens, she seems bored by life. Our first taste of violence is actually her and a friend shooting holes in the canvas of her latest artwork. It’s an act of violence that ultimately proves unfulfilling.
Her house is a subtle nightmare. Wooden crucifixes are everywhere as if they came out of a Leone Western. They’re likely an art installation, but the movie never makes that explicit. (More on this later.) A skull is placed prominently on the grounds and serves as a reminder to the viewers that we’re going to be in for some violent doings.
Interestingly, a huge chunk of that is going to be symbolically implied.
Here’s what I mean. The movie opens with a gold heist. Two assassins shoot from a distance and kill the driver and his motorcycle escorts. They walk up, shoot their victims in the head to make sure they’re dead, and steal the gold. Then they go to a butcher shop to pick up a large butchered hog.
Later, they arrive at the artist’s house. We see them open the trunk to get groceries, and there’s a bloody bag there. Did they bring a body home? Wait, no. That’s the hog that they picked up. Right, they had that establishing scene and everything.
But then, later, we see our killers burying what looks like a dead body in a grave. No, they really did bring a fed body home! But as it turns out… it’s the artist’s latest project, and these guys, friends of hers (and possibly the same men helping her with her artworks in the flashbacks) doing the grunt work. This actually did not come together for me until some scenes later. Two cops pay the artist a visit trying to find some runaways. They pass by a hand sticking out of the ground, and they do not bother to investigate.
One imagines they’ve encountered this woman’s art projects before.
Criticisms about how this movie is hard to follow are valid, but I would not have it any other way. I can’t see it being quite as compelling if the directors opted for a more conventional approach. You know, one that would care about establishing character names or rigidly determining what is real and what is not. That moment when your brain finally snaps together what’s going on? It’s the raison d’être.
It’s unique how this movie uncoils into your brain until the plot gradually reveals itself. There are even time stamps, because sometimes the movie will rewind an let you see how events unfolded from another observer. This is one of the few touches that signifies this movie was not made in the 1970’s. A quirk of the directors if you will.
And by God, the sound mixing. There are several tributes to giallo. Several scenes are bathed in a sickly red light. Scene transitions take on the surreal quality of a dark fairy tale. Most prominent are the black leather gloves that several characters wear. But the directors never let you forget about that leather. You will hear it creaking constantly to the point it becomes fetishistic. More so than even the scenes where a woman is bound and where a man is urinated upon.
If you’ve seen movies in this genre (whether spaghetti western or giallo), you have a good sense of where everything is going. There are few sympathetic characters, save for the runaways or the police who stumble on a dangerous crime scene unaware. You are watching this movie almost completely for the mood.
In that respect, the movie delivers.
In interviews, Cattet and Forzani have mentioned what they love about the genres they are playing homage to. The perversity in how they make murder beautiful. The juxtaposition of violence and horror with sex. The Italian movie genres may have died in the ‘80s, but their themes still awaken the primal depths of your mind.
Toward the end we only see the artist as a shadow. There are close-ups to her face, but it is all back and framed by a hair that writhe in the wind like Medusa’s snakes or a J-horror ghost. We then see flashbacks to when she is a younger artist, this time back-lit by the sun. We still cannot see her face. The aged artist and younger artist are indistinguishable. The camera views her from the ground up, as if you’re being looked down upon by a goddess. It’s as if the artist has transformed into who she has always been. Death. The Grim Reaper. Her expression in unknowable, but you can surmise that — given how enfeebled she seemed at the beginning of the movie — what she feels is ecstatic, orgasmic joy in her power over men.
That’s when I realized I loved this movie.
Let the Corpses Tan is available on Prime Video.