Giving Credibility to the Universe: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani on Laissez bronzer les cadavres

By Christoph Huber

“The .22 bullet tore a tiny hole into the canvas. The detonation was marginally louder than the crack of a whip. In the valley a crow protested. Luce emitted a short, husky laugh quite similar to the sound of the crow.” Thus begins Laissez bronzer les cadavres!, the first novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, the hilarious, hardboiled renovator of French crime literature whose work in (and about) literature and film I fêted in Cinema Scope 62 on the unfortunate occasion of Pierre Morel’s 2015 “comeback” Manchette adaptation The Gunman. Co-written in 1971 with director Jean-Pierre Bastid after some of their film projects failed to get off the ground, and followed by nine slim, revolutionary Manchette novels over the next decade, Laissez bronzer les cadavres! has a tight, behaviourist style that may be inadequately rendered by my own translation from German (in the English-language world Manchette is still barely acknowledged, despite a few recent editions), but still may give an inkling of Manchette’s no-frills, blackly humorous approach. The revival he instigated characteristically came to be identified with a label he himself coined, with parodistic intentions: neopolar.

The novel’s stripped-down plot is rendered with exemplary economy, compressed in space and time. (There are countdown-like time annotations: the opening is preceded by the captions “Friday, July 16th—10:30.”) Gangsters Rhino, Gros, and Alex have made their way to a deserted cluster of dwellings on a hillside next to the sea in the south of France, the only residents two eccentric, once-acclaimed artists, painter Luce and her burned-out ex, writer Max Bernier. After ten pages, it’s 12:43 p.m. and the gangsters have successfully looted 250 kilos of gold from a transport truck on a nearby route, killing a couple of guards and cops in the process. The return to the hilly retreat is complicated by the unwanted presence of another trio: a fugitive wife, with son and nanny in tow, who accidentally leads two policemen to the premises. One is killed almost instantly, but the other, a stickler named Lambert, proves tenacious. Over the course of the night he fights a battle with the gangsters, with the indifferent yet increasingly bemused (and sauced) artists sniping from the sidelines, while their opportunistic lawyer pal Bisorgueil, who organized the whole scheme, tries to con his way out. By 6:30 a.m., the inevitable progression has resulted in a bloody series of absurd yet entirely logical confrontations. Among the few survivors at the tale’s end, Max is carried off in an ambulance and gleefully exclaims the titular line: “Let the corpses tan!”

Violent and anarchic, but amusingly dry in style, with side-splitting asides and details (Gros, of correspondingly bulky appearance, runs through the precisely mapped shootout sessions without pants, having been surprised by the mêlée after an impromptu fling with libidinous Luce), this perfect little novel may at first glance seem an odd fit for the Belgian directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Breaking onto the scene with Amer (2009) and L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps (2013), they’ve been branded as practitioners of neo-giallo, expertly crafting arty tributes to the Italian crime/horror/psycho-thriller hybrid genre that’s almost as tricky to define as noir. But their precisely choreographed, yet often oneiric image-sound symphonies are closer to the pure surrealism associated with avant-garde traditions, despite being anchored by narrative hooks familiar from the genre, especially its hallucinatory outliers (of which there is no lack in giallo).

The pair’s early shorts, mostly condensing surrealist and strongly giallo-related imagery (razor blades and eroticism) for major audiovisual impact, may be a better indicator of their directorial vision, unburdened by the market demand of fulfilling conventional narrative expectations. Sometimes misunderstood as hip postmodernists, Cattet and Forzani are among the few genre auteurs conceiving cinema as a pure spectacle of images and sounds generating emotions and thoughts—something always at least partially possible within the boundaries of mainstream production until the ’80s. Their predilection for the ’70s, attested to by choice soundtrack selections from Italy’s finest composers for accordingly free-spirited genre movies (from Ennio Morricone to Stelvio Cipriani), finds an ideal match in the debut of the crime writer who would define that decade in France (the last of Manchette’s ten short, sharp novels was published in 1981). Like Manchette, Cattet and Forzani combine formal rigour with popular forms, and despite their very different stylistic leanings, their artistic sensibilities are highly compatible—a surrealist match for Manchette’s anarchism, capped by a shared sense of humour.

Astonishingly faithful to its source although spiced with select and salient changes, Cattet and Forzani’s Laissez bronzer les cadavres may come to be recognized as one of the best and most original literary adaptations in decades, even as it is an astonishingly cinematic experience. Relentlessly driven onward by Manchette-Bastid’s clockwork setup, the film nevertheless feels operatic in its exuberant succession of extravagant and exquisite images, suggesting additional levels of meaning, complicating the straightforward crime plot in a way reminiscent of such directors as Nicolas Roeg, Andrzej Zulawski, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento: it’s abstraction as dreamwork. Having premiered on Locarno’s Piazza Grande, Laissez bronzer les cadavres tour on the festival circuit still has not reconciled the ambivalent reactions towards Cattet and Forzani’s unique approach from critics, festival audiences, or genre fans, although their stop at the /slash Festival in Vienna (where the following interview took place) was greeted with near-unanimous enthusiasm. Regardless, their new film shows a remarkable extension of their already refined palette, both in a painterly sense as well as in one of scope. Shot mostly on (appropriately impressive) location in Corsica and featuring an excellent ensemble (with the incomparable Elina Löwensohn especially laudable as Luce), Laissez bronzer les cadavres reinvents genre tropes as vibrantly coloured and very personal pop art. Not bad for a film that begins with the symbolic execution of an artwork.

Cinema Scope: Your films take a pure formal approach: they are conceived in sounds and images rather than plot points or similarly constrictive formulas governing today’s arthouse funding. Your soundtrack choices underscore that it wasn’t always this way, as something like Cesare Canevari’s cult spaghetti Western ¡Mátalo! (1970) is close to an abstract film for much of its runtime. How difficult is it for you to sustain your approach today?

Bruno Forzani: Writing for us means conceiving the project in visuals and sounds, not as a “normal” script. So for financing we have to rewrite everything so it works like, you know, “literature.” Because the people you deal with then are no longer used to different types of storytelling. Maybe this is a temporary phenomenon, I don’t know. For L’étrange couleur we had to prepare so many different versions for possible producers that by the end we were no longer sure which one was our original! Going back to make the final storyboards, it takes a lot of time to recapture what we intended in the first place.

Hélène Cattet: Even our rewritten versions are too technical for the commissions anyway! The word we hear most often is “Why?” They always complain our scripts are difficult to read.

Forzani: Too much form, that’s what they always say.

Scope: And surely the buzzwords: “Too little content.”

Forzani: But the form…

Cattet: Is the content!

Forzani: It is the story. It’s not all about plot points. As for Laissez bronzer les cadavres, the novel is very visual, so many images came to us easily. Then we expanded. For instance, the strange attraction between two of the thugs is a subtext we tried to amplify through very formal sequences. The same goes for the death of Gros. We put great effort into the visuals to translate little bits of the novel, its craziness, and come up with something new.

Scope: The film is full of such mind-images, like that staggering shot of a woman whose clothes are ripped off by a hail of machine-gun fire, an abstracted bullet ballet to make you feel the impact: whoosh! For your first adaptation, you’ve chosen a novel whose visual and behaviourist style suits your approach. Your films are similarly present tense: people’s reactions in the now, with no unnecessary psychologizing.

Cattet: You understand characters through their actions and not because of some blah-blah-blah…

Forzani: Laissez bronzer les cadavres is like L’étrange couleur: no psychology, all action. In that sense, it is important that the novel was written in 1970. There are always waves of progress and regression in what people find acceptable, so maybe audiences or producers simply are no longer accustomed to this approach.

Scope: But your film aims for a timeless quality. It could have been made at any point since 1971.

Forzani: Yes, we deliberately mixed in elements from the ’70s and the ’80s: the choice of clothes and music, the use of sets and location…

Cattet: Those ruins! As in all our movies, we wanted to create an out-of-time universe.

Forzani: The novel also appealed to us because it’s not your usual gangster-film situation. Normally, in police thrillers you are either on the side of the gangster, and it’s about the society of consumption. Or you side with the police, usually resulting in a very conservative stance.

Cattet: We wanted to avoid both and instead go for something more universal.

Forzani: A bit like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): the people and the gold and the nature setting, that’s the orbit.

Cattet: As for the gold, it was important that it is the pure element, not just money. This completely changes the meaning: you literally have gold fever, and we could do lots of interesting stuff with the material.

Scope: Those gold shots are a good example of translating the novel into your style, with visual puns on top of it throughout: gold is used to cover bodies, there are amazing shots of it mixing with crimson blood to almost abstract effect—plus, of course, the golden showers! You’re very faithful to the book, but there are crucial changes. The character Luce is transformed from a supporting to the main character. One could say you’ve made a very male book a bit more female.

Forzani: For us, Luce became the door to enter this universe. The opening shots announce that the artist can fight as well, and we took the concept somewhere else, into that timeless realm…to make it more surrealist, and like performance art. In the novel, the artists Luce and Max are a bit ridiculous. We wanted to do them justice, so their point of view is more important in the film.

Cattet: It also allowed us some distance. The gunfights are seen through Luce’s eyes and she views them like performance pieces.

Scope: You also added extended psychedelic sequences: surreal flashback depictions of an earlier orgy initiated by Luce, barely mentioned in the book. It’s maybe half a paragraph, though Manchette and Bastid come up with a hilarious name for it: the “Olympic Orgasms.”

Forzani: We needed the possibility to open up a more fantastic world, not just make a movie about people fighting. The Olympics serve as a link between the sex and gold, with this sexual aspect adding just the perfect little note for us. That bit in the novel gave us an opportunity for something we knew had to be great, so we conceived flashbacks not in black and white, but in black and blue. And for each of them—now it gets a bit theoretical—we took a key torture scene from an Italian Western. The guy buried in the sand is from Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968), and the girl being whipped is from his Django (1966) and others…all used as departure points, to be transformed into erotic performance.

Scope: The cop who is shot has been turned into a female character in the film, and is played by French porn legend Marilyn Jess, credited here as Dominique Troyes.

Cattet: Originally, we cast Marilyn Jess as Luce, and wanted another French ’70s porn star to play Max.

Forzani: So the actors, like the characters, would be people who have broken taboos and contributed to changes in society. At the beginning of the ’70s wave, porn was still illegal; they could have gone to prison.

Cattet: Testing Marilyn and others for their roles, we shot one sequence with each actor and then edited them together to see how the interaction would work. We needed to figure out which constellation would form the best group. But as soon as we met Elina Löwensohn, the results were so incredible that we reconsidered everything. Still, we wanted to work with Marilyn, so we gave her a small part—as a representative of authority, which we thought was funny.

Scope: The novel has class division playing out as class warfare: upscale types like the lawyer clash with working-class gangsters.

Forzani: You can’t escape it, as it’s written into the characters, but we were really interested in the theme. In opposition to the conservative police movies mentioned earlier, here was a completely anarchist perspective. When the woman says to the cop, “I want you to die!” it reminds us of the sheriff’s situation in Italian Westerns. American Westerns usually take the point of view of law and order, whereas in spaghetti Westerns everybody is both good and bad, moral and immoral. We wanted to keep that to add a little spice to the story.

Scope: Italian Westerns clearly influenced your aesthetic program, from the choice of proudly analogue film stock—again Super 16, with grain beautifully adding to your palette—to the look and CinemaScope format, to the setting and the way you film certain shootouts.

Cattet: We worked digitally only once—for our ABC of Death episode “Orgasm” (2012)—and were disappointed by the look. Something is lacking, notably in outdoor scenes.

Forzani: I think the magic in shooting on film comes from giving credibility to the universe. You create something material. Shot digitally, Laissez bronzer les cadavres would just be a carnival. We even used Techniscope to get closer to the feel of Italian Westerns. Thinking of them during storyboarding, we wanted to avoid pastiche. What would be the point of shooting the final duel in Sergio Leone style, when he has already done it perfectly? Rather, we strived for a feverish quality. Of course we’ve seen many spaghetti Westerns over the years, and they leave memories. We try to recapture the feelings that have remained in us, which is very subjective; we’re not interested in making some sort of homage. Our general approach is not theoretical, even as playful things like the use of mirror effects could probably be traced back to certain sources.

Scope: Paraphrasing Jacques Rivette: if you see a lot, you can at least pick your influences. As voracious cinephiles you have many and love taking about them, so your work often gets discussed as a catalogues of references—postmodern collage. But you try to shape those inspirations into something completely your own. Your music choices are used in counterpoint to perceived influences. The Western shootout finale is set to Ennio Morricone’s a cappella chorus for Aldo Lado’s great giallo Who Saw Her Die? (1972), whereas the opening heist is scored to his unusual theme for Sergio Sollima’s Italo-Western classic Face to Face (1967).

Forzani: Funny enough, when talking to an Italian journalist who loves old genre movies, he said watching our films gave him the sensation that he remembered from going to the cinema as a little kid. But not specific, like this Enzo G. Castellari movie or that Leone—more like Proust’s madeleine.

Cattet: It’s about that kind of sensation: reaching into your memory.

Scope: The novel has a very striking setting. How did you find your filming location?

Forzani: It’s a place in Corsica’s hills only reachable by helicopter or on foot. For three weeks, before and after shooting, we all walked two hours each way to the set and back. During the day, the food was brought in by donkeys. Originally, we tried to find the place near Pont-Saint-Esprit, where the book is set. But asking Jean-Pierre Bastid and Manchette’s son about what original location served as inspiration, we got two completely different answers! Finally, we heard of a place nearby fitting the description, but when we got there, the bungalow settlement was on the other side of a valley. In France, those abandoned places for outcasts and people who withdrew from society in the ’70s have been turned into tourist locations, so we searched all over the south in vain, becoming a little depressed. But then we went to Corsica and discovered this perfect spot. There was another option in Sicily, but Hélène was sceptical.

Cattet: Corsica was better because it was so beautiful.

Forzani: The other mostly consists of grey rocks, and is not colourful at all. For this kind of film, you can’t go with something looking so poor.

Scope: In many ways, the location is the real main character, even more so than Luce.

Forzani: For us, it was the first character. We needed to see it to start working on the humans.

Cattet: We have to rewrite everything once we’ve found the location.

Scope: But it’s not only the visual aspect. Each person and object has a unique sound.

Forzani: During shooting we use direct sound only for the dialogue. We edit mute footage, which took us ten weeks on Laissez bronzer les cadavres—five to put the shots in the order we wanted, five more to work on the scenes with the actors. But sound editing was 12 weeks, with two full weeks just for getting the right sounds. Our foley artist Olivier Thys has been aboard since our short Santos Palace (2006), so by now we think completely on the same level. So we found the right sounds very fast this time, even as it was more complicated. Our other films are very metaphoric and oneiric, but here it started out realistic. And we have a lot more characters in the frame, so the mix has to respect everybody’s placement—even when they’re offscreen! Our sound editor has a big database that helped. For example, he can access gun sounds from very close to very far.

Scope: Manchette was very much into guns. He wrote several articles on how crime writers should be informed on different types of firearms, ammo, and accessories, often elaborating on the mistakes authors, including himself, had made previously.

Cattet: We had to do research on the guns. We didn’t know anything, but wanted to respect the original vision.

Forzani: We tried to use exactly the same weapons as described in the book, but some simply don’t exist anymore, in which case we tried to get as close as possible. Part of the challenge was to reconcile Manchette’s fetishism for guns with our point of view. We were a bit scared at the beginning, because it is not a subject we are very fond of.

Scope: You’re more into razors!

Forzani: Yes! We had never worked with these kinds of weapons, and we asked ourselves if we’d really want to see them used to kill people. But obviously we couldn’t escape that.

Scope: What made you choose this Manchette novel? Because it was never filmed before?

Cattet: It was the first Manchette book we discovered. It felt very familiar to all those Western-style images and crime elements relating to my movie memories, and I was instantly struck by its use of time and space. So I gave it to Bruno to read it quickly. The other novels we only encountered later and never considered them.

Forzani: Manchette’s other books have more urban settings. The ghost town of Laissez bronzer les cadavres makes it easier to achieve a timeless quality. At the risk of talking like a producer, a city would make it more expensive, exceeding our kind of budgets. Anyway, we wanted to make something Mediterranean rather than urban. I love La position du tireur couché, but it would be almost a blockbuster if you want to shoot it in ’70s-style. And it would probably become a period movie like La French (2014) instead of feeling timeless. Of course, La position du tireur couché is a bit like Melville, but that wouldn’t work either today: just think of the weird updated 2007 remake of Le deuxième souffle (1966). There’s the danger it becomes just homage. But Le petit bleu de la côte ouest could conceivably be made today—it’s less Melvillian than about society in general.

Scope: Was it difficult to get the rights to the novel?

Forzani: We were lucky! Our producer François Cognard is a good friend of Doug Headline, who is Manchette’s son—we didn’t know! He was unhappy with the way his father was adapted in French cinema, whether The Gunman recently (which was made by a French director) or the Alain Delon films of the ’80s. So he doesn’t want the French to touch Manchette anymore. But he loved Amer and was excited to see Manchette broached in another style.

Scope: Although your movies are quite abstract and very constructed on a technical level, their centre is always the corporeal experience. They’re about the bodies of people and what they do to each other.

Forzani: Well, this comes with the territory. Our approach is linked to our world’s sociability and the question of desire. The bodies of the characters shape the desire and our feelings towards them, also for the audience. If you can provoke desire and erotic attraction, it draws the viewers into the film, and maybe they become lost in it. For instance, with the death of Gros we decided that we wouldn’t show something gory [mimics massacre-type gunfire], but focus on the body to make it interesting…

Cattet: And talk about the characters, too.

Forzani: To achieve an impact we were again drawn to the body, as with desire. If you choose the right body part, it causes a reaction.

Scope: Did you also watch poliziotteschi? Plot-wise that would be the closest Italian genre.

Forzani: Well, one poliziottescho director—who was a Western director, too!—has given us lots of pleasure and inspiration: Enzo G. Castellari. His The Big Racket (1976) is a masterpiece for some sequences. The zooms in Amer probably came from there, and now we did it again, like in that scene when Lambert looks at everybody. Reading the book, we had instantly thought of Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974). But on rewatching it, we realized it’s only the beginning that fits perfectly…

Scope: Yes, then comes the claustrophobic part, which is very different.

Forzani: But we found another film: Cry of a Prostitute (1974) by Andrea Bianchi. It was a revelation and became a reference point: a poliziottescho shot like a Western, set in Sicily, full of sadism. The meat in Laissez bronzer les cadavres comes from that movie. I mean, there’s also meat in the Manchette-Bastid book, but not like that. The link between meat and sex comes from Bianchi’s film.

Scope: How do you feel about your place in Belgian film culture? It started out with surrealist and experimental works by directors like Charles Dekeukeleire, and there was a tradition of the fantastic and surrealist, to which your films hark back. But now the usual social realism dominates. Do you feel alone, or are you connected with people like Fabrice du Welz, who also shows some surrealist leanings?

Forzani: We feel more proximity to the oneiric worlds in the films of Lucile Hadžihalilović or to Peter Strickland. What du Welz makes, I wouldn’t exactly call surrealist; he’s more into magic realism. But yes, in Belgium…

Cattet: You find surrealism in everyday life rather than on the screen!

Forzani: In today’s films, everything has to be explained so everybody understands. Surrealism works exactly the opposite way!