“The dreamer saw herself climbing down over some palisades holding a blossoming branch in her hand. In connection with this image she thought of the angel holding a spray of lilies in pictures of the Annunciation—her own name was Maria—and of girls in white robes walking in Corpus Christi processions, when the streets are decorated with green branches. Thus the blossoming branch in the dream without any doubt alluded to sexual innocence. However, the branch was covered with red flowers, each of which was like a camellia. By the end of her walk—so the dream went on—the blossoms were already a good deal faded. There then followed some unmistakable allusions to menstruation.” –Sigmund Freud
“It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” – Julia Kristeva
While Amer tracks Ana through the uncanny, psycho-sexual landscape of her own mind, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange), the protagonist of Cattet & Forzani’s second feature, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, reels through a kaleidoscopic headspace of bloody fears and desires. Just as Ana experiences a cinematic primal scene when she witnesses her parents having sex, Dan goes through a primal scene as well, one that is perhaps less lurid but still shocking to his childhood psyche. This chapter will start at the end of the film and track backwards, or in a looping formation. Shortly after we see young Dan flipping through the pages of a pornographic magazine, we find him framed in between the legs of “Laura,” his childhood crush. Menstrual blood runs down the inside of her leg. Young Dan’s mouth voices her name, but it is his adult voice heard on the soundtrack. This scene, occurring in the last couple minutes of the film, explains all of the confusion, fetishization, and blood that precedes it. In Strange Color, the excessive blood does not flow from an average horror movie. Cattet & Forzani make sure the audience knows this is the blood of true abject horror. Through Freud’s concepts of dream condensation and Kristeva’s writing on abjection, the film can be interpreted as a male fever dream of oddity and insecurity. Separating itself from conventional, mainstream horror films, the picture suggests the radical potential of a deviant, gothic cinema.
One of the more famous scenes of menstruation in movie history is the erotically charged opening sequence of Brian de Palma’s linear narrative, Carrie (1976). Bordering on soft-core pornography, the slow motion camerawork shows Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) in a high school shower, lathering herself up with soapsuds, “pleasurably massaging and stroking her body.” Blood soon begins flowing from between her legs to her naïve distress, and when she reaches out for help the crowd of insensitive schoolgirls throw tampons and towels at her, humiliatingly chanting “plug it up!” This refrain is not just the practical resolution to controlling the menstrual flow, but also suggestive of the resolution to the film as a whole. Carrie is drenched in pig blood in the climactic prom scene as chaos ensues, but there is an eventual return to order. This reaffirmation of order is what Stephen King, author of the original novel the movie is based on, claims is the basis of horror as an inherently conservative genre. Viewers want to feel scared and uncomfortable in a controlled environment, but eventually the blood and the plot need to be cleaned up (plugged up).
What makes Strange Color different than Carrie is that it does not resolve or take care of the protagonist’s abjection, but revels in it. This is what makes it a distinctly gothic piece of horror cinema; instead of a resolution, the idling in abjection creates feedback loops of gestures or similar scenes recurring, turning the unsettling, art nouveau set-piece into a timeless, undulating space. The non- or multi-linear narrative of the film leads up to the image of the primal scene, which then retrogressively extrapolates back to the start, drenching all of the previous, sanguine scenes in menstrual blood. Young Dan cannot accept the sight of menstruation and displaces “Laura’s” body onto the idealized, unsullied bodies he observed in the pornographic magazine. This shunning of the female body is in part because of the failure or refusal to try and understand it. He is simultaneously in horror of what he desires, or rather doesn’t even know what he desires. Julia Kristeva writes, “The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and indefinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Dan’s opposition to his own desires equal a negation of the “I.” With this in mind, along with the above epigraphs, it is not necessarily just menstrual blood, but adult Dan Kristensen’s identity and perceived order of things becoming disrupted, which causes abjection. Giallo cinema, in all its disorganized, irrational, and anarchic constructs is a perfect reference point for the movie to subvert and play with further.
Cattet & Forzani are not the first filmmakers to confront menstruation in a gothic context. Jarimil Jires’ 1970, Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is more of a gothic fairytale (as opposed to nightmare), starting out with the title character (Jaroslava Schallerova) expelling blood from between her legs for the first time, which falls on an immaculate white flower. What follows is a circuitous narrative-defying story, quite different in tone from Strange Color, but sharing a similar oneiric, labyrinthine structure. Critic Jana Prikryl notes that, “It’s as if the narrative joints that traditionally string a film together have been scissored away, leaving a sense not just of the uncanny but also of something formally primitive and uncontainable.” Valerie is not only abject in its uncontainability, but also uncanny, making it very much similar to Amer as well. Both are stories of women who must constantly dodge aggressors and riddles in order to triumph. The same skeletal idea can be found in Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest or Mysteries of Udolpho, tales written in the late eighteenth century. Sight and Sound critic Michael Atkinson states, “Valerie herself skips and slinks and strips through the gauzy milieu unthreatened and rather delighted with her newfound sexual power. The coy girl even gets burned at the stake at one point by a fiery clergyman and terrified townspeople, but she is entertained by it, like Catherine Deneuve getting pelted with mud at the onset of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.” Atkinson relates Valerie with one of the previously noted sadomasochistic heroines, Séverine, enduring an undeserved, vile, yet fantastically enjoyable punishment. This treatment is related to sexual power at the same time. Jires’ film is a predecessor to the work of Cattet & Forzani just as much as giallo cinema is, presenting the audience with perverse situations that are simultaneously horrifying and pleasurable. Dissonance between sound and image, borderline softcore, a steady flow of menstrual blood, voyeurism, constant confusion of identity—all of these elements come back in a cinematic encore during Strange Color.
With this in mind, it is extremely difficult, and in a way pointless to attempt to explain the “plot” of Strange Color, simply because there isn’t very much of one. It starts as a locked-room mystery, in which a man arrives home from a business trip to find that his wife is missing from their apartment. From there, he begins to explore the apartment building, which as Kristeva might put it is a “place where meaning collapses.” The man is Dan Kristensen, the suddenly-missing woman, Edwige (Ursula Bedena). At least, that is the easy way to explain who the identities of these characters are, an explanation that becomes more and more complicated as the movie continues. Strange Color is a film about the difference among phantasies, fantasies and dreams. It is about color in a variety of ways, from aesthetic to racial, and which ones are present versus absent. The film is an artwork that does not shy away from violence or excess, and refuses to fall into normativity in form or content.
Let it be noted that my analysis of this film about identity also takes into account Tania Modleski’s analysis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), another gothic tale that insists on rupturing the sense of being in both the spectators and characters. Modleski states that her analyses of Hitchcock’s films are “in part meant to demonstrate that this male spectator is as much “deconstructed” as constructed by the films, which reveal a fascination with femininity that throws masculine identity into question and crisis. This fascination opens a space for the female spectator of the films, providing for a more complicated relation to the texts than has generally been allowed in contemporary film criticism.” She then argues against Laura Mulvey’s classic analysis of Vertigo, in which Mulvey states that the film is “cut to the measure of male desire.” What Mulvey’s analysis omits are the scenes in which mirrors and self-reflexivity confuse characters’ perspectives, the extremely important reveal in the film that is told entirely from Judy’s (Kim Novak) perspective, and the scenes in which Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) identifies with a feminine perspective. All of these techniques are deployed by Cattet & Forzani in Strange Color as well. Regarding the characters in the film, the directors make it clear that the male protagonist is meant to be treated more like the traditional female victim of giallo cinema than a husband/hero. However, this is a point of contention in that almost all of the characters, regardless of gender, are at some point or another on the receiving end of violence. Within the realm of sadomasochistic fantasy, however, this does not necessarily imply victimhood in the traditional sense.
The labyrinthine space of the apartment building almost becomes a character in itself, similar to the horror house in Argento’s Inferno (1980), or any of the spaces in Polanski’s apartment trilogy . Via unorthodox editing techniques, the building is turned inside out, existing as two or more places. At the same time, with the introduction of other characters, the identity known as “Dan Kristensen” becomes confused. As the film unfolds, more male characters come into play—Detective Vincentelli, the landlord Dermont, and the elusive, voyeuristic, bearded man. They all mesh together as one identity, in a way not unlike Freud’s dream interpretation technique known as condensation. By the end of the film it is difficult to determine which male character is which; they may look different, but all of their thoughts and motivations are the same. Fantasies are different from dreams, depending on waking and sleeping states; Cattet & Forzani’s elaborate construction can be dissected via Freud’s dream theory.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes about one of his own:
“There is another way in which a ‘collective figure’ can be produced for purposes of dream-condensation, namely by uniting the actual features of two or more people into a single dream-image. It was in this way that the Dr. M. of my dream was constructed. He bore the name of Dr. M., he spoke and acted like him; but his physical characteristics and his malady belonged to someone else, namely to my eldest brother. One single feature, his pale appearance, was doubly determined, since it was common to both of them in real life.”>
In Strange Color, all of the male characters are combined into one entity, representative of confusion, ineptitude, voyeurism, and fear. Dan futilely seeks out Edwige, Vincentelli is useless when it comes to police work, the bearded man is hired to covertly spy on The Lady in Red, and Dermont the landlord has a fetishistic preoccupation with the feminine entity known as “Laura.” As they interact, these characters all take on each other’s preoccupations and characteristics. This is apparent most implicitly in the use of split-screen imagery. The double or triple split-screen is a device used to break up the idea of linear narrative structure even more, forcing spectators to decide what they want to focus on, inevitably missing something in just one viewing. In a way, the spectator is left to continue editing the film in their own mind, forcing them to become acutely active viewers.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. p. 335
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia U Press, 1982. p. 4.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993. p. 79.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990. p. 199. King states, “Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings…”
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia U Press, 1982. pp. 1-2.
Prikryl, Jana. “Grandmother, what big fangs you have!” accompanying essay from The Criterion Collection release of Valerie, 2015.
Atkinson, Michael. “Michael Atkinson on a flower-power favourite that captures the hedonistic spirit of its trippy times.” Sight & Sound, October 2008, Vol. 18, Issue 10. p. 92.
 Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Routledge, 1989. p. 87.
Bitel, Anton. “Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet on The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.” https://www.filmdivider.com/2932/bruno-forzani-and-helene-cattet-on-the-strange-colour-of-your-bodys-tears/ Published: June 23, 2014. Accessed: November 9, 2015.
The “apartment trilogy” as it is now referred to is made up of Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976).
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. p. 310.
The inclusion of this wardrobe piece is most likely a reference to the well known giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972, Emilio Miraglia).