The French Go Gonzo Italiano in the Surrealistic “Let the Corpses Tan”

Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani may be French, but they bleed Italian cinema. These two are responsible for the kaleidoscopic horrors in 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears and 2009’s Amer. Both films drew heavily from the works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, combining intrigue, surrealism, and mesmerizing imagery with plots that are merely narrow highways right into evocative Freudian nightmares.

Now the duo have returned with Let the Corpses Tan, constructing a stunning — even awe-inspiring — tale of double-crossing and unrepentant human casualty by employing the filmmaking methods of spaghetti-western director Sergio Leone, along with, of course, the lurid, exploitative blood-and-dagger imagery of classic Italian giallos. The story follows a gang of misfit criminals escaping to a hideout carved into the rocky Italian cliffside, where an eccentric, society-hating artist, Luce (Elina Löwensohn), and her guests sunbathe and make bullet-ridden art. Don’t pay too much attention to the plot. Just know that there’s a cache of gold bricks in a car, a cop who has stumbled on the hideout, an arsenal of weapons, and only one way in or out of the compound.

Cattet and Forzani play with a fractured timeline. Most of the story takes place within a tense 24-hour shootout among the ruins in the hills. Characters are split up into different bunkers and lookouts, and the story will often rewind itself to examine the same scene from a different character’s point of view. This method also allows viewers to gain a surety of space — the ruins are almost labyrinthine. Great credit must be given to locations managers Jean-Christophe Meneec and Stefane Tatibouet (or whoever found this magical cliffside spot), as it’s fitting that this story of endless death and greed play out in what seems to be the remnants of an ancient Catholic church destroyed by neglect and time. That’s also very Italian.

Traditional giallos and spaghetti westerns boast something like double the number of camera shots of most movies, as the genres demand quick cuts and extreme close-ups for a barrage of reaction moments. Here, the camera will in one moment push in like a gunshot for an ultra-close-up of Luce’s shifty eyes before swing-panning out to a glaringly bright ecru wide shot of the coast’s rocky expanse. Then it pushes in again on an object of interest, like a goat carcass swinging from a hook in the kitchen — Cattet and Forzani would prefer you not get too comfortable. One reason why those old giallos and spaghetti westerns were allowed to develop this aesthetic is because Italian cinema had created a sophisticated system of dubbing films. They could shoot more quickly, because no one was worrying about vocal performances, wind, or unwanted ambient noise — they could record it all back in the studio. Corpses mixes the ambient with some pretty unnerving pinpointed foley sound. Every rocking-chair squeak or eyelid closing comes to life in frightening detail.

But what matters most is that imagery, which is seriously made without taking itself too seriously. Think the psychedelic ascendency of early Alejandro Jodorowsky, films that, through an overt focus on primal elements, become both cosmic and comic. In Corpses, we see this in “dream” sequences: A beautiful naked woman stands in silhouette, the gleaming sun behind her back, while Christophe’s western-inflected pop anthem “Sunny Road to Salina” plays. The woman acts essentially as a goddess, her scenes intermittently breaking up the action of the main story. She interacts with four faceless men also in silhouette. At times, she is urinating on them; at others, they are lassoing her with ropes, squeezing what appears to be champagne out from her nipples. I swear to goddess this all makes sense in the story, that it’s art with a capital “A,” but it’s also quite funny. These directors excel at poking fun at the intermingling of sex and violence in cinema, taking it to its most logical illogical conclusion, as in a scene where a woman imagines bullets shooting off pieces of her dress until she stands naked and aroused. We’re certainly not supposed to take that seriously.

Even the carnage, here, is inspired. When one of the criminals attempts to make off with the gold bricks weighing down the trunk of the getaway car, we’re seemingly transported to a surreal landscape of pitch-black nothingness. We know the man’s body is being riddled with bullets because of the sound of incessant gunshots, but Cattet and Forzani present the scene as him being painted in iridescent gold as globules of the precious metal pour down around him. More times than I could count I had no idea what the hell was happening, and also just didn’t care that I didn’t know. Let the Corpses Tan is that strange and beautiful.

Let the Corpses Tan 
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Kino Lorber
Opens August 31, Quad Cinema and Alama Drafthouse, Brooklyn


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Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska’s Alt-Western “Damsel” Isn’t as Clever as It Thinks It Is

The tonally berserk western-comedy hybrid Damsel often suggests a Wes Anderson–directed acid western, only without Anderson’s knack for sad-sack jokes about macho pride or the acid western’s typically spiritual consideration of white guys’ destructive nature.

Instead, fraternal co-writer/co-director duo David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) subject the understandably exasperated pioneer woman Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) to a gauntlet of cartoonishly immature men — particularly dumbbell fiancé Samuel (Robert Pattinson) and his jittery traveling companion Parson Henry (David Zellner) — who all imagine she’s a helpless babe in the woods and seek to dominate her.

Unfortunately, Penelope almost never gets to use her Looney Tunes–style weapons — a physically bent, out-of-shape, two-barrel rifle and several bundles of dynamite sticks — on the Zellners’ preferred subjects. They are juvenile Nice Guys who run off cliffs, compare the size of their Adam’s apples, and shoot each other while they’re on the john or taking a leak. Still, you may like Damsel if you’ve ever wanted to see, in detail, a grown (and uncircumcised) man piss himself after being fatally shot in the head.

Or you may be frustrated by the Zellners’ goony critique of toxic masculinity. Consider that their most substantial dig at Samuel’s pseudo-harmless self-image — a campfire scene where Pattinson’s character performs for Henry a love ballad that he wrote for Penelope — only requires the former Twilight star to strum a guitar while murmuring variations on “Oh, honeybun,” “My honeybun,” and “I love you, honeybun.” Pattinson and Wasikowska deserve better material than the Zellners’ head-scratchingly lazy jokes.

Written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner
Magnolia Pictures
Opens June 22, IFC Center, Landmark 57 West, and Film Society of Lincoln Center


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Horseman, Pass By: “The Rider” Is an Astonishing Look at Modern-Day Cowboys

“You’re on big old Gus again. Loping across the prairie, feel the wind on your face, chasing them cows out of the trees. You excited? You bet, brother.” A horseman says this to another near the end of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the dreamy vision full of both hope and melancholy. For the young cowboys at the heart of Zhao’s film, mounting a horse and galloping across a field represents more than just freedom — it becomes a communion with the past and the future, allowing these riders to imagine and inhabit their best selves. And there’s the rub: The movie’s about what happens when you can’t ride anymore. These lines are spoken in an antiseptic hospital room, by one broken boy to another.

Shot among real Sioux cowboys in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, many of them essentially playing themselves, Zhao’s picture follows a young rodeo hotshot who’s been sidelined by a grave injury, the result of a ghastly fall off a horse. (Go here to read my interview with the director, in which we discuss how exactly she made the film.) Told that he might die if he ever attempts to ride again, Brady (played by real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau, whose own life and career-ending injury inspired the film) wrestles with the idea of a future devoid of the one activity that gives him meaning. His family — which consists of his prickly, gambling-addict dad and his autistic sister (also playing themselves) — is about to be evicted from their small ranch home. Brady is fenced in poverty and desperation, as well as reminders of his former life: friends, colleagues, fans, and a seemingly endless supply of YouTube videos.

He’s also surrounded by horses and fields. This young man has an almost spiritual relationship to the creatures and the land. In one longish shot, we watch as he approaches a supposedly untamable animal — “a horse that’s had nobody on his back before” — and, applying subtle pressure and guiding it in small circles, actually quiets the beast down. It’s symbiotic: As the horse softens, so too does the man. And when he is able to sneak in a ride — those brief, stolen instances when he can hop on a horse and blissfully charge across the plain — something changes in Brady, and in the world around him. The desolation and destitution seem to fade away. After each ride, Zhao shows her protagonist looking off into the distance. Much of The Rider has been shot at magic hour, and in these moments, it’s hard not to be overcome by the splendor of the landscape. The land stretches away forever in great meadows, and the horizon finally seems to glow again with newness and possibility.

Movies that blend narrative and documentary — whether in the form of one of those unclassifiables we now see regularly at Sundance, or a studio comedy with celebrity cameos — often find ways to cordon off the fiction from the real life, winking at us when the boundaries have been crossed. Intentionally or not, such films become about the blurring of these lines. That has its place. But Zhao takes a different approach, privileging the narrative, the poetry, and the realism in equal measure, blending them together to create something astonishingly powerful.

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That Brady is a real horseman becomes evident when we see him interact with his non-human scene partners.  And the film opens with the young man taking staples out of his horrifically scarred-up, bandaged head — a scene so visceral, I had to turn away. Some of The Rider’s most touching moments come when Brady visits his paraplegic best friend and fellow rodeo casualty, Lane Scott, who also plays himself. Brady helps Lane — whose injuries are infinitely more severe than his — with physical therapy, as they fake-ride on hospital equipment, dreaming of the open fields.

Such authenticity of milieu and action helps bolster the film’s more philosophical and psychological elements. Barely in his early twenties, Brady is caught between the duties of manhood and a child’s helplessness. When he argues with his tough-guy father, their tense confrontations have a slow-burning danger to them. They’re not melodramatic movie shouting matches, amped up for impact; the rage and resentment are restrained, the way it tends to happen in the real world.

But perhaps more important is what they’re arguing about, which is the dilemma at the heart of the film. Dad has instilled a macho code in his son, but now wants him to stand down from the fight of his life. “What happened to cowboy up, grit your teeth? What happened to all that, dad?” Brady asks, and the older man has no response. Neither do we; the movies — especially westerns — traffic in myths of physical bravery and freedom. The Rider is, in part, a deconstruction of such myths. When Zhao shows us what riding means to Brady — the spiritual and emotional place it holds in his life — she partly buys into the myth, but then she turns around and interrogates it. Can we be whole again, she asks, even when we must deny ourselves the thing that makes us what we are?

The Rider
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens April 13, Angelika Film Center and The Landmark at 57 West