There are few aspects of film more alternated praised and criticized than so-called “excessive” style. Whether manifested in languor or in freneticism, rapid bursts of images or gorgeously exacting frames, the excesses of the styles of one director or the other has been dissected, castigated, fawned over, and put back together again in mountains of words written in the past decade alone. And yet, despite all of this sometimes heated and passionate discourse, such overt manifestations of filmmaking still seem even more subjective, even less explainable than most other determining factors of a film.
One of the most overt examples of this in recent years comes in the form of Let the Corpses Tan, a neo-Western crime film directed by Hélène Catte and Bruno Forzani, best known for their prior giallo efforts Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Though this time the gloriously pulpy title is taken from the source material, a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, the sensibility and eye for relentless stylization is unmistakeable. For better and for worse, this is an unfiltered vision, throwing in so many techniques and formal devices that it somehow becomes a unified aesthetic.
Perhaps expectedly, the plot is lean and minimal. Unfolding over the course of a day, Let the Corpses Tan takes place almost exclusively at a remote commune, populated by a handful of people including an artist (Elina Löwensohn). A few members, unbeknownst to some of the others, are thieves, who brutally attack an armored car and steal 250 kilograms of gold and attempt to hide out at the house. Once two police officers arrive, things quickly devolve into a protracted shoot-out, where geography is king and loyalties and character alignments become even hazier by the minute.
Of course, there have been innumerable films with almost exactly this same premise, and to match there have been a great multitude of styles, some more broadly appealing than others. Cattet and Forzani, shooting on sun-streaked 16mm, have opted for an overwhelming barrage of extreme close-ups, all color-graded to Mad Max: Fury Road levels of blue and orange, and frequently using one overt camera “movement” or another: frenetic handheld, a lightning-fast zoom. The effect is not necessarily one of abstraction – in general, Let the Corpses Tan establishes a certain point of view that delineates each character – but like the literal darkness that ultimately pervades the film, the emphasis on one body part through one camera angle can be and often is disorienting.
And all this is without even discussing the most outrageous stylistic and narrative choices in Let the Corpses Tan. Some work rather well – the preparations for the heist taking place solely in primary-color tinted frames, the frequent illumination of faces by flames in close-up – while others do not: the tracking of the movements of the combatants by using a map infested by ants, the numerous fantasy dream sequences, and above all the time-stamps, which break up the flow of the action in a way that feels unnecessarily, deleteriously perverse. Above all, this is a film that both energizes and enervates, so deeply embedded in its style that one logically either has to embrace it or reject it. Somehow, I found myself doing both.