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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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