Sam Peckinpah was a colorful filmmaker, but his favorite hue was red. It looked good as contrast flying out of bullet wounds in slow motion against a blue sky, or seeping into yellow sand. Husband and wife directorial duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have a history with giallo horror with their films Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. They are now pouring spaghetti western sauce over 1970s Italian crime movies, and they ladle out the blood like gravy. The Belgium-produced, French language crime thriller Let the Corpses Tan is a kaleidoscope of violence. Deep reds pour from white helmets, green-white puss oozes over the freshly killed, and everything is gilded.
The film opens with a shot into an oversaturated canvass, and then brings the bloody symmetry to life. This isn’t Stanley Kubrick symmetry. It is measured through tight faces and naked angles. Ears and eyes fill each other’s face like certain Picasso paintings. It is a much more intimate wound. Like An Andalusian Dog, the 1929 art film by Luis Buñuel, ants play a large subliminal part in the film. They are stand-ins for the people, line every crevice, circle rotting flesh, and are ready for their close-ups under a microscope on white paper.
The plot involves the aftermath of an attack on an armored truck carrying gold bars. The robbers pull off the theft wearing Frankenstein masks, but still leave no living witnesses. Ever resourceful, the gang nonchalantly fits the heist in after a trip to town for supplies. The crime is timed, the routes watched, the police escort is taken out, and then double-tapped, to paraphrase Zombieland, and swiftly executed.
While still on their timetable, the robbers stop to pick up a trio of hitchhikers who happen to be going to the same remote house on Mediterranean cliffs they are. The gangsters are a motley but surprising crew, swigging from bottles, shooting from the hip and yet comparing their idyllic hideout to unfathomable oneness with nature. They’re not afraid to trade machine gun bullets with the police, but are a little cautious about getting into custody battles.
Romanian-American actress Elina Löwensohn makes Luce a commanding figure. She would have to be, running a den of trigger-happy thieves. The townspeople think of Luce as the crazy lady who lives with some writers and artists in semi-seclusion. The cigar-chomping, pistol packing mama doesn’t like cops, has no use for society and shifts on the sands between paradise and hell. The path to her rocky abode is lined with headstones, sometimes with the skulls of the severed heads in front of them, as well as other rotting dead things. Luce makes a grand entrance, as her unmasked marauders shower her in gold dust for what seems like an ongoing orgy. Her exit is less a golden slumber than a rude awakening.
Not that Luce is beyond knocking people out. Among the filtered images playing into a psychedelic nightmare are shots of rags over mouths, probably chloroform or ether, followed by the loss of conscious camera work and sensual innuendo. Luce’s libido flares up during violence and we get the idea she gets it on with everyone in her campy camp. She’s assembled quite a menagerie. The crime boss Rhino (Stephane Ferrara) is fearsome yet poetic. He’s brutal but cuts people more slack than the alcoholic writer Bernier (Marc Barbe), who could pass for one of the gang, especially when his wife (Sorylia Calmel) and son (Bamba) show up. They and a maid, played by Marine Sainsily, are caught up in the coincidental whirlwind of impending doom. Two police officers, played by Herve Sogne and Dominique Troyes, show up for comic relief but stay for the collateral damage.
The film lacks blatant humor, rendering some of the violence funny, as bullets become unintentional punch lines. This is an auteur’s adventure film and some of the more stylized shots, intimate angles, and forced perception might be seen as pretentious, but the gore makes up for that. Let the Corpses Tan pulls out all the stops when it comes to eliciting that special queasy feeling. They offer up sizzling flesh, putrid skins and golden showers from purgatory. The sex scenes in the film are really quickies. It’s like sex is a way to pass the time and yet it flies by, usually leaving some kind of residue, with the flashiest photography. I’d say in the wink of an eye if there weren’t a scene that merges subliminal sex against one of the men forcing an eye open through puddling blood.
Let the Corpses Tan is based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and the pulp is palpable. The scenes fly by like automatic weapon shots, then skip back on themselves, as an intermittent stopwatch keeps time. The gang flips loyalties liberally, double and triples cross each other, and dispatch members at a moment’s notice. This is a little confusing to the audience, but no doubt infuriating to the members themselves.
The film is psychedelic, the hideout is a hallucinogenic haze under the night’s fires and the daylight sun. Hand-held cameras follow runners, but toss the battlefield into a blender of negative imagery. The gore is so brightly lit it occasionally looks like the firefight is done with paint balls. There is one very original take on a Mexican standoff, with one man standing over another and both reaching for their guns too late. The music by Ennio Morricone is urgent.
Let the Corpses Tan is a colorful crime flick with a super-16mm grindhouse heart and the soul of a painter who died undiscovered. Jackson Pollack would later splatter paint on the old canvasses. No crime there.