Review: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #662

Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 12, 2013 (Locarno Film Festival)
Sub-Genre: Giallo
Country of Origin: Belgium, France, Luxembourg
Running Time: 102 minutes
Directors: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Producers: François Cognard, Eve Commenge
Screenplay: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Special Effects: David Scherer
Visual Effects: Daniel Bruylandt
Cinematography: Manuel Dacosse
Editing: Bernard Beets
Studios: Anonymes Films, Tobina Film, Epidemic
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Stars: Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener, Birgit Yew, Hans De Munter, Anna D’Annunzio, Jean-Michel Vovk, Manon Beuchot, Romain Roll, Lolita Oosterlynck

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Bruno Nicolai “Invasamento (Sequence 1)”
[2] Keith Emerson “Inferno”
[3] Alessandro Alessandroni “Suor Omicidi (Sequence 4)”

There are few tools quite as powerful as film. It has the power to make us laugh, cry, shriek and shake our fists; can transport us to another place entirely; and challenge the way we think or feel. However it can also dumbfound, discombobulate and leave us none the wiser. It’s all subjective and no two people will view a movie quite the same way. There are always going to be detractors, those for whom said piece of art has no redeemable qualities, and they are very much entitled to their opinions. That’s the beauty of it you see and the reason why my approach vastly differs from other “critics”. Ultimately I’m no better equipped than the next man to form a judgement and that is why scoring the films I appraise is my least favorite part of the process. Hence I use this merely as a guideline, one devised by the head and with miniscule involvement from heart and soul. I then ask that you to pay close attention to the body of text that proceeds each rating and it is here that I reveal most about what a film has truly meant to me. I do so without prejudice, bidding primarily to build it up as opposed to taking it down a notch, and ensure that any criticism made is constructive.

Certain works may not resonate personally and leave me feeling cold and disconnected; providing precious little mental or spiritual nourishment. However, I am wired in a certain way and appreciate that this may not lend itself well to forging attachment. On the other hand, some may find a film to be totally lacking in artistic merit yet it will have a profound effect on yours truly. This is where friendly debate comes in handy although entering this process with your mind already made up feels counter-productive to me. Surely any piece of art that can mean so much or little dependent of vantage makes for the best kind of discussion point. The moment I become set in my ways, you have my full and fervent blessing to shoot me in the back of the head like the scabby horse that I am. This particular appraisal will likely frustrate many as I’ve heard intense hatred spewed its way first-hand and understand that these views aren’t subject to change. It just seems a crying shame to me as there’s a thin line between love and hate provided you’re willing to pay the middle ground a visit.

Belgium-based French filmmakers and life companions, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, made a bold cinematic statement in 2009 with Amer spearheading the modern-day resurgence of the Italian giallo, while refusing to be easily pigeonholed. Boasting a whole host of new wave sensibilities and defying characterization at every turn, it assaulted our senses non-stop from first shot to last and seldom let up for a second. The influences were plain to see, indeed certain naysayers accused the film of being little more than a cut and paste exercise, but that’s where reading between the lines becomes necessary. You see, it would take a fair few watches to even begin to grasp all of its narrative complexities and the fact that it oozes retina-bleeding style from every last frame makes repeat viewing that much less laborious. Few films in my 35+ years as a student have seduced me so effortlessly and conclusively and I’d have to cast my mind back to Dario Argento’s Suspiria for the kind of vulnerability I’ve felt while under the influence. High praise indeed but it actually leads us rather conveniently into Cattet & Forzani’s sophomore feature.

If Amer was their Suspiria, then The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is undoubtedly their Inferno. That film almost finished Argento off creatively and a long period of exhaustion followed its conception. In many ways, it measured up to its predecessor, particularly with regards to style, something it had in almost over-abundance. However, while narrative came distant second to experience, it made no attempt to make itself accessible. Like the characters wandering aimlessly through its lurid labyrinth, we were required to put in the legwork, knowing that there was no right or wrong way to decipher its perplexing puzzle. Given that the titular build was essentially a bricks and mortar representation of Argento’s deepest, darkest imaginings; we should count ourselves lucky just to receive such a summons. After all, who doesn’t wish to spend 107 minutes in the personal head space of one of the true maestros of contemporary horror? Of course, there are no rules that state he has to make us feel at home.

While we’re on comparisons, here’s another one to wrap your thinking gear round. If Amer was a love letter to giallo, then The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is more of a ransom note. Volatile, seldom obliging, and at times borderline illegible; it speaks in a thousand hushed whispers, precious few of which make a blind bit of sense.

Fusing together the split screen technique of Brian De Palma; the insular psychological terror of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant); and the vividly choreographed murder set pieces of Argento at his prime into one optically challenging tapestry, Cattet & Forzani flat refuse to settle into any kind of discernible rhythm and lead us down their own primrose path, one that feels both strangely familiar and utterly alien in the very same moment. Whereas previously they shot on 16mm film before blowing up to 35mm to recreate the grainy effect of seventies giallo cinema, here everything is entirely digital and bleeds from the screen as profusely as the tears of its victim’s bodies.

Our eyes and ears belong to businessman Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange), who returns home from a lengthy trip to find his apartment locked from the inside and wife Edwige (Ursula Bedena) nowhere to be found. He isn’t alone in his bemusement as other residents in the same building appear to relate to his angst, from brash detective Vincentelli (Jean-Michel Vovk), whose significant other has also disappeared seemingly into thin air, to a mourning neighbor whose husband did the precise same thing.

However, the journey of discovery he is about to embark on is one he will be required to undertake alone as his already flimsy grip on reality is fast slackening and he can barely trust himself, let alone the unreliable testament of another. The answers apparently lie within the walls of this very construct and the rabbit hole soon opens up before him, to which he has no option but leap in blind.

So to the building itself. Furnished in the style of Art Nouveau, it is an expansive warren of gorgeous décor, dazzling stained glass, and vertigo-inducing spiral stairwells that somehow feels stifling and inhospitable. Every doorway leads to some place more sinister, each shadow hosts a madness more inexplicable, and never once do we feel as though welcome and not about to be severely reprimanded for trespassing, much like Mater Tenebrarum’s NYC stronghold from Inferno.

Our main protagonist, on the other hand, is best viewed as an impersonal construct as he is largely passive throughout and any clues provided come from everyone and thing around him. Just to be clear, they’re pretty damn vague, and precious little hangs together no matter how intensely we attempt to decrypt them. Some may find this approach too standoffish and tail off well before the opening act is through.

However, this is where our imaginations come into play as we are left to form our own conclusions, when the very most we can ever do is speculate. Just as we fathom one conundrum, Cattet & Forzani riddle us two more, leaving us feeling like we’re treading quicksand. That said, each time we feel like we’re sinking, it offers us a branch to hang onto, courtesy of some of the most surreal and nightmarish scenarios I’ve ever had the fortune (good or otherwise) of being subjected to.

Every time we feel even vaguely secure, we are ushered back into uncertainty, manipulated at will, and our reality re-shaped; with Manuel Dacosse’s Kafkaesque cinematography, Julia Iribarria’s white-gloved production design, and Daniel Bruylandt’s obtrusive audio combining to disorientate us further. From the warm glow of primary colors to icy-cold black and white, quick cuts to stop-motion, the only thing consistent is the feeling of being gradually smothered, from the inside no less.

Predictably, the critical response to The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears was anything but kindly with adjectives such as vacuous, pretentious and repulsive used to describe it. The fact that you could drastically reshuffle its scenes into whichever order you so wished and feel no less mystified infuriated many, and while I accept that it simply isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I wouldn’t be surprised if much of this disgust stemmed from their own frustration at not possessing the creative tool set to process its fractal data. While they’re well within their rights to accuse it of being little more than an exercise in “style over substance”, I would argue that the style actually supplies the substance.

To be fair, it could be held culpable of outstaying its welcome by around ten minutes, and while the sensory overload that The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears supplies lacks none of the immediacy of Amer, it does forfeit some of its intimacy. Actually perhaps intimacy isn’t the right term here, as in certain respects, it pulls us in even closer. But like a fine mural painting with no explicit meaning, it is ultimately open to an interpretation many won’t have the patience to make. This my friends is modern cinema at its most polarizing, although given my undying devotion to Inferno, there seemed little other option than to check in. I always have been a sucker for the glint of cold steel.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: While infrequent, the brutalities here are unapologetically jarring, each slice surgical in its precision, and the underlying subtext of sexual depravity is undeniable in these instances. From vagina-shaped head wounds, to the voyeuristic manner in which we witness each gash being fashioned, there’s an intense eroticism to The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears that literally gushes from the screen.

Read Amer Appraisal
Read Inferno Appraisal
Read Profondo Rosso Appraisal
Read Tulpa Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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    1. Thank you Susan. It’s about time I take another look at some classic Polanski actually. I appraised Frantic recently and haven’t released it yet but, other than that, I haven’t delved into his body of work.

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