For my money, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are two of the best genre directors working today. Their two feature-length gialli, Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014) are among the greatest "throwback" films of all-time, taking the vocabulary and iconography of the giallo and twisting it into something new and exciting, all while playing with the cinematic form with a barrage of close-ups, split screens, and Chris Marker-esque jump-cut slideshows. The only downside is that, as of the time of this writing, only the aforementioned gialli are available for viewing, while their latest film, Let the Corpses Tan, won’t be released stateside until this summer. So what’s a fan of hyper-stylized neo-gialli to do? Why, turn to their shorts, of course!
Like many filmmakers, Cattet and Forzani honed the aesthetic they’d use in their later films through their early shorts. Unlike all filmmakers, they’re quite open with sharing their entire filmography—from their very first short to the last thing they filmed before directing Amer. These films, included as bonus features on the Amer Blu-ray, are not only extremely entertaining, but help chart the stylistic progression of two of the most exciting directors in modern horror.
Their first film, Catharsis (2001), lays out their style quite nicely. Filmed in Cattet’s basement over the course of a weekend, Catharsis sets up everything that would make the duo phenomenal in just three minutes: Forzani’s love of giallo, Cattet’s love of La Jetee, and their shared love of incredibly disturbing psychosexual imagery.
Catharsis also marks the couple’s first collaboration with their-go to actor Jean-Michel Vovk, who has since appeared in all of their giallo love letters, regardless of length. In the short, Vovk portrays an unnamed man who wanders into a mysterious basement, only to find his own corpse laying among rusty metal. The two lock eyes, a gloved killer appears behind Vovk, and then things get weird.
I mean really weird. Time bends, reality warps, and characteristically, the film takes increasingly graphic turns, showcasing multiple bloody murders of our unnamed protagonist, each more morbid than the last. Like the best scenes of their later work, Catharsis uses the lighting, color, and style of a giallo while playing around with editing and sound design, all of which come together to help make scenes that might otherwise seem unremarkable—a man getting cut up by a razor—become spectacles that are aesthetically beautiful while still managing to be incredibly sickening.
The highlight of the film, a sequence in which one of the many versions of Jean-Michel Vovk gets a Pi-style drill to the head before being ground up in a grinder is easily among the most disturbing things the duo has ever filmed, despite being relatively bloodless and instead focusing on suggestion through sound design and editing. While the incredibly grainy visuals and sometimes dubious framing are enough to make it clear that Catharsis is an early effort, the grime and grit only add to the film’s atmosphere, and can stand head and shoulders above a good chunk of other horror shorts out there.
Building off the body mutilation of Catharsis, The End of Our Love aka La fin de notre amour (2003) doubles down on the hallucinatory imagery while adding a more concrete setup. Vovk plays a tortured artist stuck in an abusive relationship with a woman, whose torments (demonstrated through nightmarish scenes of disembowelment) are slowly driving him mad. He imagines fighting back, sticking needles in her eye, cutting open her head to see what could possibly compel her to hurt him. It’s easily the most disturbing of their shorts, and the artist’s abusive partner manifesting as a black-clad giallo killer with the cackle of the titular villain from The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is easily among the most creative and striking ways the duo has ever twisted giallo iconography.
Not only does The End of Our Love serve as the duo’s first real brush with examining the psyche of men shattered by relationships, a theme they’d later revisit in their masterpiece, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013), but it is perhaps the most wildly nightmarish of the batch, with the narrative trappings melting away around the halfway point in favor of pure imagery. That’s not a bad thing, because The End of Our Love is easily the most beautiful and stylistically challenging of their early works. For one, the picture quality is better all around, but it also plays more with unique lighting, and the Marker-isms of Catharsis are taken to some truly absurd levels, letting the film freewheel in and out of its slideshow styling.
This isn’t even counting the even more abstract experimentation, like the abundance of intentionally fuzzy shots of mysterious organs, hyper close-ups that draw comparison between red paint on a tan canvas and blood on the artist’s arms, and a flashing, multi-colored intro that brings to mind the striking opening credits of Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger. Each new visual trick and aesthetic quirk helps add to the oppressive, surreal tone of the short
Admittedly, the short film does get a bit exhausting as it goes on, switching visual styles so rapidly without giving any of them the same meditative breathing room they’d get in Amer or The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. While I’m sure a good chunk of this breathlessness is intentional, eventually it gets to the point where even a Strange Colors devotee like myself starts to become disengaged. It’s really a shame, because The End of Our Love is certainly an effective short film, but it just doesn’t stick the landing in the same way their better works do.
While The End of Our Love suffered from needless clutter and overload, The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow aka L'étrange portrait de la dame en jaune has almost the exact opposite problem. For the record, this short film was the product of another shoot’s location getting destroyed in a hurricane, causing them to scramble to come up with another short. So The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow is simple. Really simple. An incredibly straightforward giallo death scene, following a woman who showers, before being murdered by a gloved killer in her house.
The real angle, and The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow’s central gimmick, is while their previous films were frantic, kinetic, and constantly playing with aesthetics, The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow is done in a single, static shot with no visible cuts, or any editing besides a last-act camera trick. It’s the sort of visual that seems interesting on paper, but it wears out its welcome way before the short wraps, and only receives a single bit of creative payoff towards the end in the aforementioned camera trick.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do any interesting playing with giallo imagery or signatures, either. Instead, it opts to play them straight, showing a killer and a victim without giving much insight into either, nor framing their actions in a unique way. The exercise seems entirely visual, but unlike Catharsis or The End of Our Love, the visuals don’t add anything to the story, nor do they reflect on their own stylistic quirks and genius. For my money, The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow is the most unremarkable film of the set, and for the matter, the most unremarkable film in their careers.
In 2006, the couple made the short film Santos Palace. It was their first film shot with an actual production company behind it, as well as their first film done in Cinemascope. It was perhaps the biggest leap in visual and storytelling quality between films they ever had up until this point, and its themes of man’s control and violence towards women are a clear precursor to Amer.
It is also, surprisingly, not a genre film. Sure, it uses many of the same visual traits they’d become known for—hyper close-ups, leather coats, romance leading to violence—but it stays strictly within the realm of reality, and doesn’t go for any of the crazier editing or lighting flourishes found in the duo’s earlier works. It is, in their own words, not a giallo, and it’s not really a horror film, either.
So, instead of closing the piece on the last short Cattet and Forzani made (aside from their entry to The ABCs of Death), I am opting to close it on my favorite: Chambre Jaune (2002). Much like how The End of Our Love used giallo iconography to tell a story of domestic abuse, Chambre Jaune interprets giallo through a very different lens: giallo as an eroticized S&M work. Given the genre’s love of sex, violence, and leather, it’s not that hard of a genre leap to make, and it’s pulled off with flying colors.
Chambre Jaune is set up like a typical giallo kill. A leather-clad man watches a woman’s apartment before entering it, cutting the phone cord, leaving a calling card, and confronting her with a razor in hand. But unlike a normal giallo, she doesn’t scream and he doesn’t just slit her throat. Instead, she lies on her bed while the killer caresses her, and moans in ecstasy as he carefully caresses her chest with his blade—a scene that would later be used to great effect in the opening of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. It’s the sort of giallo inversion Cattet and Forzani were made for, using the genre’s trademarks and traits to tell a radically different story, all while keeping the giallo’s signature preoccupations with sex and violence in the forefront.
It helps that Chambre Jaune also showcases some of the best technical work the couple did in their shorts, utilizing their now-developing signatures more conservatively, instead of the "throw everything at the wall" approach of The End of Our Love. The lighting is beautiful, the jump-cut slideshows serve a clear narrative purpose, and the hyper close-ups help sell the sensuality of the film's big scene. The short flows so well and so naturally, that even the big extra twist in the last minute comes as a shock, without the sort of jarring stylistic interruption found in some of their other shorts. It’s a simple story told with the perfect amount of style, and the closest any of the shorts come to capturing the brilliance of Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. It’s a remarkable work from remarkable directors, and if you can only see one of their shorts in your life, do yourself a favor. Make it this one.Next: Crypt of Curiosities – The Early Feature Films of David Cronenberg