The latest slavish homage to vintage exploitation genre tropes by Belgian duo Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, “Let the Corpses Tan” slightly expands one of the most rarefied bodies of work in recent cinema. This time the object of homage is (primarily) violent European crime thrillers of the 1970s, as opposed to the same era’s giallos, to which the co-directors’ “Amer” and “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears” paid tribute. The shift in genre creates a comparatively more coherent narrative, with fidelity to the near-senseless horror plots no longer a requirement.
Otherwise this is a fetishistically precise recreation of a dead retro style, with no substance on the menu beyond the second-hand or accidental. Like a house made entirely of popsicle sticks, Cattet and Forzani’s movies are remarkable feats of dedication and detail, yet the nagging questions “What’s the function? What’s the point?” will continue to divide viewers. Commercial prospects remain marginal, but a particular echelon of cinephiles will again be highly enthused.
A near-ruined complex of hilltop structures in some dusty southland (presumably Spain) houses various self-professed exiles from society, including the imperious Luce (Elina Lowensohn), a middle-aged woman inclined toward provocatively scanty dress; alcoholic writer Bernier (Marc Barbe); Luce’s younger lawyer-lover (Michelangelo Marchese); and grizzled crime boss Rhino (Stephane Ferrara). Rhino and Luce are the apparent ringleaders in an armored truck’s deadly ambush that snipers and masked motorcyclists pull off not far away.
A haul of gold bricks swiftly lands at the complex, but even before its arrival, the master plan has drifted off course due to the unscheduled arrival of Bernier’s wife (Sorylia Calmel), son (Bamba) and maid (Marine Sainsily). Their appearances further complicate a domino effect of double- and triple-crossings that explode into a full-on shootout once two police officers (Herve Sogne, Dominique Troyes) trace the stolen loot to this forlorn site.
Cattet and Forzani’s thing is to take the most stylized aspects of vintage exploitation films, which usually simply punctuated or glossed their narratives, and turn those fillips into the film’s entire emphasis. Any stray excerpt of “Corpses” could be taken as evidence of a fascinating, eccentric lost obscurity, replete with all the outdated joys of its chosen era and genre references. They include solarized images, gratuitous nudity, giant Spaghetti Western-style closeups of glaring eyes, disorienting cross-cutting, gauzy flashbacks, surrealism, crude symbolism and so forth, all shot for maximum grainy nostalgia value in super-16mm.
As in most of the principally Italian crime melodramas that are the main inspiration here, greed is taken for granted as the most basic motivation in a nihilistic universe where the tenderest emotion expressed is usually vengeance. Glimpses from the murky past of a golddust-covered naked woman introduce a vaguely supernatural element that only grows more mysterious at the fadeout.
At various points here, it’s not entirely clear who is shooting at whom or why, but “Corpses” otherwise reps a step away from dream logic and toward a more conventional narrative for the writer-directors. Still, there’s a certain patience-testing confusion that kicks in quickly when viewers realize that once again the filmmakers are simply cramming in as many referential tropes as possible, with often striking contrast between individual sequences but little consideration for overall pacing, suspense or story arc (despite the fact that “Corpses” is actually based on a presumably coherent 1971 pulp novel). The performers embody physical archetypes rather than fleshed-out personalities, just as the meticulously realized visual and audio details add up more to a genre compendium than an organic whole.
It’s hard not to admire the filmmakers’ obsessive, singular mission, which is fully of a piece with their prior features and shorts. At the same time, it’s hard to experience much emotion (save eventual fatigue) from what plays like an endless compilation of idiosyncratic highlights from forgotten Euro B pics of an adventuresome period. Nonetheless, even if the rewards are limited, the technique is impeccable. That extends to a soundtrack mostly comprised of delicious archival tracks, many by the era’s screen composing king, Ennio Morricone himself.