Now That's What I Call Giallo: Ursula Bedena as Edwige.
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The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears: Giallo shots

Husband and wife duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's have created a new giallo film with all the necessary beauty and depravity expected of the genre, but without the intelligence and terror of a classic.

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (18)
dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

It can’t be an accident that whenever I order an ice cream in Italy, my brain offers the word giallo instead of gelato. The two are linked for me in a way that is more than phonetic. My reaction the first time I consumed a tiramisu cone, thick with slabs of cake protruding from the ice cream, was not dissimilar to how I felt after I first saw a horror movie by Dario Argento, whose work is the most widely seen of the ravishing and overblown giallo species. I was subtly nauseous but also purring with pleasure.

The British film-maker Peter Strickland reignited interest in the genre with his playful 2012 thriller Berberian Sound Studio. Strickland can be heard in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears as one of the “special screams”, though I couldn’t say which – there are many to choose from, what with all the stabbings and slicings and blades plunging into the tops of heads and between thighs.

This is both a new giallo and a tribute to the genre. It succeeds in providing the necessary doses of beauty and depravity from its opening images of a knife grazing a woman’s nipple. Terror and intelligibility are in shorter supply.

Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) returns from a business trip to find his wife, Edwige (Ursula Bedena), missing from their apartment. He does what any of us would do: he puts Now That’s What I Call a Giallo Soundtrack on the turntable at eardrum-perforating volume and conducts door-to-door inquiries of his neighbours. A silver-haired woman tells him her husband also recently went missing. Cue a flashback to the night they were having sadomasochistic sex and she awoke from the sedative he had administered to find him drilling a hole in the ceiling – right into the head of the mural of a naked woman that was painted there. The next thing she knew, he was in the flat upstairs and calling down to her through the hole, asking for lit matches to be passed up to him in the dark. This she did, before a single drop of blood hit her face and she never saw him again. What I wouldn’t give to see that staged as a reconstruction on Crimewatch.

A woebegone detective turns up next. “I’m worried about my wife,” Dan tells him. “I worked for a man once who was worried for his wife,” the detective replies. Time for another long flashback, this one involving corsets being laced, thigh-length boots being unzipped and the use of three gaily coloured pendants as deadly weapons. “What has all that got to do with my wife?” Dan asks, not unreasonably, when it’s over. Some of us will have wondered the same thing.

Sensible viewers will relinquish early on in the film any hope of coherence. The frame is routinely carved up, with the screen divided into quarters or halves, so that the top of one person’s face is paired with the mouth of another. A lucid narrative was never going to be a priority for film-makers who can’t honour basic laws of composition. But the Belgian writing-directing team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (who happen to be married) invest so much in rhapsodic imagery and crunchy, delicious sound design that it’s possible to be swept along for a while by the film’s momentum and madness. They have a knack for a disquieting image. The black-and-white freeze-frame of a doll’s minuscule hand reaching towards a human throat many times its size is one I expect to be seeing again in my nightmares.

One danger for a film that is sensually stimulating but with no intellectual or suspenseful component is that audiences can’t get wrapped up in the on-screen mystery. There are answers, of sorts, to the questions of where Dan’s wife has gone and why there are human figures moving under the wallpaper. I knew I’d ceased caring, though, when Dan started wielding a sledgehammer in his flat and my only concern was whether that was a supporting wall he was about to knock down.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times