A band of robbers hide away in a hamlet in the Mediterranean desert after stowing 250 kilos worth of gold bars in the trunk of their car and picking up a family of hitchhikers on their way back from the heist. Two police officers show up, and the whole thing devolves into a shootout.
It is an exceedingly simple premise to a film, one that reeks of a cliched action-crime genre re-hash. But Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan is anything but simple, and the word “cliche” doesn’t hold any meaning in the visual hallucinogenic that is their vision.
To be fair, the film does begin by playing a few familiar chords. The striking block lettering, in blood red font on a black background, recalls a fellow French-born director with a unique visual style: Gaspar Noe. The first images of the film allude to Leone: extreme closeups of eyes, guns being drawn, wooden cross grave markers, and a half-burnt stogie pursed between lips. The influence of the Spaghetti Western is evident throughout the film, as a matter of fact.
The premise of a post-robbery breakdown could also be linked back to Reservoir Dogs, another throwback to 1970s genre cinema. Not to mention that the much-coveted Macguffin of treasure repeatedly glows yellow in the face of the characters, which hearkens back to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (itself being an allusion).
While lines could be drawn between this film and other films or film genres, what Cattet and Forzani have here is a true cinematic experience. It may not be wholly original, and its depth may only exist in the fleeting mirage images that its characters see on their deathbeds, but it is certainly never dull. Indeed, it is one of those films where every shot is its own little shock of electricity; the film itself a system of exposed wires that you are watching slowly spark up into a wild electrical fire.
Yes, the plot is thinner than the hair on an aging man’s head. The headline “botched robbery turns bloody” just about sums up the whole 90-minute runtime. Yes, the characters provide nothing of substance to the audience. They barely have names or dialogue, let alone depth.
Generally, these are flaws that hurt a movie’s effectiveness. One can argue that these flaws are buried under the weight of style-over-substance filmmaking, and that person would not be wrong. As such, it’s hard to fault someone for disliking this movie.
But it’s harder to deny that the film’s visual material is immersive. The film consistently maintains a rapidly-edited pacing. However, at the start of the film the characters are more languid. In the first scene, they luxuriate in the searing sun. After the robbery, they sit around a fire and pensively take in their victory. It is in these scenes that the geography of the location is established.
Abruptly, the police arrive, and the world of these thieves quickly crumbles into panic. As this happens, the style of the film crumbles with it. Characters split up, time overlaps as we see the same action repeated from different characters’ points of view, and the geography becomes muddled. Increasingly, action speeds up and space tightens to the point of confusion, and the pacing of the film ramps up as a result.
Things continues to crumble to the point where the formal elements of the film become subjective to whichever character is on screen in a way that is disorienting and surreal. Flashbacks of orgies resurface as characters lose their grip on sanity. Motifs of fire and light cause characters to fade in and out of view on screen. Vague religious symbology creeps up. Images of raw meat and the naked human form collide.
As the style becomes more subjective, entering into these expressionist mental landscapes of the characters, the film does begin to become too dissociated from reality for its own good. And the use of the naked female form, as much as it fits into the exploitation film influences at play here, feels unnecessary.
Nothing in the film cleanly lines up. None of it makes perfect sense. The devolution of the film into chaos may mean something, but ultimately it reads as a stylistic experiment in expressionist immersion. The deliberate choices in sound design, tight framing, and editing pull you into this simplified world of exploitation film violence.
In this sense, Let the Corpses Tan is a pulp masterpiece. It is at times decadent, at times sumptuous, at time grotesque, and at many times disorienting. Whether you get on its wavelength or not, it is a nonstop invasion of the senses.
Let the Corpses Tan: B+
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)