French directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have developed a style in which they take elements of the giallo and use them to compose intensely sensual cinematic experiences. They made their feature debut with Amer in 2009, a near-experimental exploration of a woman’s troubled psyche set in the south of France. Their follow-up, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, moves north to Brussels and into the obsessive mind of a man looking for his missing wife.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani talked to Virginie Sélavy at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and told her about using the language of giallo to give audiences a filmic orgasm.
Virginie Sélavy: How do you see the relationship of your films to giallo? Are they homage, distillation, artistic commentary?
Bruno Forzani: Definitely not homage. It’s more that we reinterpret and re-use the giallo language to tell our story.
Hélène Cattet: We use it as a tool, especially because there are strong iconographic elements whose meaning we can subvert, for instance, the figure of the assassin, which is a very striking, shocking figure. We change its meaning so it takes on a personal significance in our story.
You do the same thing with sound: you’ve used extracts from giallo films for your score. It must be difficult to re-use music that was originally composed for something specific in other films. How did you choose the tracks?
BF: Initially most of them were in the script.
HC: They inspired us as we were writing the script.
You mean that as you were writing the script you were thinking about those pieces of music?
BF: Yes, exactly. We want to use music 100% and give it all of its original power, not just compile a jukebox. So we have to find the right balance in relation to a modern film. A couple of the pieces didn’t work because they made the scenes too kitsch. One was the music for the inspector’s story at the beginning, and the other was for the opening credits. As the scene is cut all the time, it interrupted the rise of the melody and it ruined it.
Does the story inspire the music or is it the other way around?
HC: The music inspires the way a sequence develops. It gives us a rhythm, and ideas too. We listen to music as we write, and all of a sudden there’s one track that strikes us, so we play it again and again, and it inspires the rhythm.
BF: And images too.
What is the most remarkable music for you in the film?
BF: ‘Maddalena’. That’s the one when Dan goes inside the walls. It comes from the film Maddalena by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, about a priest who falls in love with a woman, and is lost between faith and passion and doesn’t know which to choose. I was very keen to have this music in the film because it’s representative of a period in Ennio Morricone’s career, and it works with the film’s themes, in relation to fantasy – we hear all these women sighing. There’s also the use of the organ that you find in the music he wrote for Westerns. For me it was the most important music. It was the hardest to get but we managed it in the end.
HC: For me it was the music from the opening credits that we didn’t keep! It was the very first piece we thought of for the film and it had inspired the first drafts. It was from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. It created the atmosphere there was at the very beginning. We started writing in 2002 and the film was very different then. It was more like a whodunit, and through the years it turned more into a ‘who am I’. The whodunit aspect of Seven Blood-Stained Orchids was really present at first.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh also seems to be a major influence.
BF: Yes, completely. The sequence when Barbara explodes on the glass body is like the flashback in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. It’s a scene that really struck me and we tried to magnify it – not to redo it because there’s no point, but to be inspired by it as if we were dreaming it in a different way. And there’s also a note on the bunch of flowers, and it’s the note that Edwige Fenech receives in the film. Sergio Martino’s films are always about vice, fantasy and sado-masochism, so it fit the subject matter perfectly.
Amer, and your contribution to The ABCs of Death, O for Orgasm, even more so, were already concerned with pain and pleasure, and sex and death. What draws you to those themes?
BF: We see the films we make as an experience. We try to give our viewers a filmic orgasm. There is definitely that aspect, to give pleasure to people.
HC: It allows us to approach the story in a sensual, physical way, to play with very strong feelings of attraction and repulsion.
BF: They are two instincts, two impulses, and as we’re trying to do something sensorial, connecting those two impulses strengthens the audience’s involvement in our sensorial experimentation. And audiences are confronted with their own impulses, which they may reject – violence, desire – and that places them in a slightly ambiguous position. For me, a film is not like a motorway, it’s about getting a bit lost among primitive things. We try to play with that, embrace that side of things 100% and not have any moral judgement in there, just connect with the impulse, whether it’s fear or love.
You seem more interested in the sensory experience than in the narrative.
HC: It’s a little as in Amer. We use all of those filmic elements to tell the story. To tell it sensually first, but there is a meaning in the end. The story is told by what is experienced through the sounds and images. We try and convey the ambiguity of a character through stylistic effects. The split screen, for instance, may look nice, but it’s there to actually show something.
BF: We construct the film in two ways. The first is the sensorial way, which corresponds to the first viewing of the film: you experience the film physically, then it sinks in. We wrote the film so it could be seen several times and people would discover different layers each time. We’re very influenced by Satoshi Kon. There are several levels of interpretation in the way he writes, and each time you see one of his films you discover new things. We wrote our film in the same way. We were also strongly influenced by David Lynch when we were teenagers. The first time we saw his films, we didn’t understand them, but the experience of them was very strong. It was a very powerful world. And gradually his films have become clearer and clearer. It’s a similar principle.
There seems to be an intense concern with seeing inside of objects, buildings and bodies in the film.
BF: Yes, there is definitely something obsessive about it. We are obsessed with close-ups, with trying to be very close to the viewers and penetrating them. We want the film to penetrate people. In the sound, we worked a lot on the bass frequencies, because bass goes into you. This film is really obsessed with penetration!
HC: And with intrusion too. That was already the case in Amer.
It’s a very baroque film, with this fascination with surface illusions, with doubles, mirroring and artifice, and of course the luxuriance of motifs.
HC: Yes, completely. That’s how we saw it. We were very inspired by Art Nouveau, and as we live in Brussels there’s a lot of that. We really wanted to film inside those Art Nouveau houses, with all those lavish motifs that fit so well with the labyrinthine aspect that we wanted for the film. It inspired us, not only in the visual motifs, but in the space and the mise en scène too – you get really lost.
Architecture is very important in giallo, but you have really found your own architectural world here. I loved the idea that the building is alive.
BF: For us, the question was always, is the building the main character, or is the main character inside the building? Where is the inside, and where is the outside?
HC: We played with the idea that the building is like a Rubik’s Cube, and the walls move, everything moves, and in the character’s mind something is triggered.
How did you choose the locations for Amer and Strange Colour?
BF: It was very natural. Amer was shot where I grew up in the south of France, on the border with Italy. And we made this one where we met, in the city where we live. So in each case it came from something personal.
It looks like every single shot has been carefully composed, with the same obsessive mindset as your characters. Do you feel there is an obsessive quality to your filmmaking?
HC: That’s the way it was visually, but also sonically, and that was even worse because we had no sounds at all – we shoot without sound – so we had to recreate absolutely everything. So, for instance, things like breathing, things that audiences don’t even notice, but will notice if they’re not there.
How long did it take you to make the film?
BF: All in all, 11 years. We started writing in 2002.
HC: Then we started the preparatory work in 2010.
This film felt closer to O for Orgasm than Amer.
HC: We made O when we were waiting to find out if we’d be able to make Strange Colour. It had been a few years since we’d last shot something, so it was perfect to get back into things. We tested things for Strange Colour in O, things like the slow-motion ghost-camera, so maybe that’s why.
What influenced the title of the film specifically?
HC: It refers to the themes of the film, while being surreal. And it brings to mind The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (aka The Case of the Bloody Iris) and All the Colours of the Dark.
That’s another major reference in the film.
BF: Yes, we use the music from All the Colours of the Dark in the credits. There is a gorgeous nightmare scene in that film. And it’s about a woman who is bored, alone all day while her husband is at work, and our film is like the other side. She goes into this sect to discover pleasure because she has no pleasure with her husband, and our film is a little like…
HC:…the husband’s point de view!
BF: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, exactly!
Have you thought about how you are going to develop the form you have created with Amer and Strange Colour in the future?
BF: I don’t know. After Amer there were people who said, ‘I don’t know what you can do after this, it can’t be renewed’. But then we made this. It’s the same themes, the same world, but it’s different. There is a third part, but we won’t do it straightaway. We’ll try and do something else in between. We’d like to do something that doesn’t come from us, because this film took so much energy, so much life. And then we’d like to go back to something personal to conclude Amer and Strange Colour.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
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