Five years ago, French-Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani sliced and diced their way onto the international horror scene with Amer, a near-experimental genre deconstruction. Their trick was to purify the giallo, that intrinsically Italian breed of slasher movie, by straining out as much narrative as possible, so that all that remained were the glorious stylistic hallmarks. (It was a movie for anyone who ever wished they could tune out the superfluous story and dialogue of a Mario Bava film and just groove to the director’s primo craftsmanship.) For an encore, Cattet and Forzani have upped the ante: Their second feature, The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears, is an even wilder giallo riff—a hypnotic fetish film that conflates sex with violence, swerves unexpectedly into sideline dramas, and exhausts every virtuosic technique in its creators’ reserve. It’s dazzling, but also excessive; by the end, even those consistently wowed by the directorial showmanship may find themselves feeling that less would have been more.
Virtually plotless, Amer hung its nightmare imagery on the barest skeleton of a premise, a warped coming-of-age story conveyed almost exclusively through evocative visuals. To both its benefit and eventual detriment, Strange Color attempts to apply Cattet and Forzani’s nonstop parade of grotesqueries—blades grazing and penetrating skin, pupils expanding with fear or desire, leather loudly crinkling—to an honest-to-God narrative. Returning from a business trip to Frankfurt, frazzled everyman Dan (Klaus Tange, who has the intensity and jagged bone structure of Guy Pearce) discovers that his wife has mysteriously disappeared from the swanky French apartment they share. His subsequent investigation leads him through the crawlspaces of his building, where old flames, bearded confidants, and black-clad assassins lurk. The plot is similarly layered, walling up stories behind stories. For example, Dan’s early encounter with an elderly neighbor results in a delirious anecdote involving matches and a peephole, while the obligatory detective on the case hijacks a conversation with some voyeuristic backstory.
For at least half of its runtime, Strange Color gets by on the crazed inventiveness of its sight-and-sound assault. Every scene offers some new hallucinatory attraction: a black-and-white tableau of murder; a heated exchanged divided into multiple quadrants, with one man’s eyes slotted above another’s mouth; and a waking dream in which a doppelgänger emerges, via a few bloody incisions, from the body of his host. Eventually, however, the film begins to lose momentum. The problem here isn’t that Cattet and Forzani mince their story into near abstraction; Amer did that, too, which was one of the things that made it such a pure-cinema delight. There’s just not enough material here to sustain a feature, and the filmmakers compensate through repetition of their formal gimmicks. After a while, the swirling camera moves, split screen, Argento lighting schemes, prog-rock soundtrack, splashes of crimson, untimely demises, and endless close-ups (of red lips, gloved hands, knives, razors, artfully exposed flesh, and lots and lots of eyeballs) become a little numbing. The impression left is that the auteurs in charge have drained their signature moves dry. They’re not quite one-trick ponies yet, but another hour-and-a-half giallo tribute would be seriously pushing it.