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Home / Film / Feature Articles / Compromising the Position of Giallo Cinema: The Gothic Journeys of Cattet & Forzani, Chapter One

Compromising the Position of Giallo Cinema: The Gothic Journeys of Cattet & Forzani, Chapter One

amer“The first concern, the concern of naïve realists, involves what might be called a perversion of cinema—that is, a simple misuse of the natural (to Bazin, noble) realism of the medium. The second concern is more complex: it addresses cinema as perversion in itself, as an economic, technical, social, and symbolic system.”—Linda Williams [1]

“Let me simply suggest the value of not invoking the perversions as terms of condemnation.”— Linda Williams [2]

Turning one’s living space into a movie set is a true sign of cinephilia, the closest somebody can get to actually living in a movie. Having grown out of their fandom of cult horror cinema, specifically the giallo sub-genre of 1960’s and 70’s Italy, Brussels-based filmmaking duo Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani began their career just that way, creating a surprisingly unique and oneiric, artistic style in the process [3] . Cattet & Forzani literally went from being fans of giallo cinema to living giallo cinema. After eventually gaining some notoriety for two award-winning short films, they received funding for their first feature Amer, released in 2009 [4]. By 2013, the couple solidified their neo-giallo style even further with their second feature, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. Throughout this short-to-feature-length journey, they have committed themselves to redisplaying the treacherous iconography of giallo—saturated primary colors, straight razors, leather garments, tense eroticism—but with male and female eyes mapping these fantasies out, instead of just the traditional male-supremacist perspective. Traditional giallo cinema is fraught with situations of base, sexualized violence; Cattet & Forzani have taken it upon themselves to acknowledge this, play with, and destabilize the compromised gendered and sexualized positions that this has produced, heretofore.

This six part feature argues that the films of Cattet & Forzani shed light on a gothically inflected set of feminist strategies that have the power to undermine male-dominated cinematic structures via the reappropriation of giallo iconography; these thematic qualities are not often so well articulated in the horror genre, which has always had the potential for displaying radical viewpoints, but is burdened by ambivalence. Through close analyses of Cattet & Forzani’s films, in addition to a series of complimentary and opposing movies, I will reveal the radical potential of their cinema. This argument is both a testament to the specific progressive cinema made by this pair of filmmakers, but also a broader consideration of how the couple’s work proves that horror cinema can create spaces of gothic perversity that subvert normative fantasies and desire, and their attending structures of power.  

strange-color-of-your-bodys-tears

The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

The Gothic is not a simple concept to understand because its meaning has been used and mutated over a number of centuries—moving from a pejorative term used to describe a style of medieval architecture that veered from the Greco-Roman tradition, to one demarcating a romantic style of 18th century cultural production, only now to be a word associated with certain musical and fashion cultures. As different as these cases are, a certain sense of embodied (ethnic, racial or gendered) difference remains consistently intimated, as the term ‘Gothic’ finds its roots in fifth century battles between The Goths and The Romans. Art Historian Hal Foster is quick to consider the ways that this is indicative of certain trends within the formation of the discipline of art history itself, claiming how a kind of “psychobiology, which is at once reductive and totalistic, returns in art history whenever tribal terms like “Gothic” and geocultural oppositions of North and South, East and West, are used in the old ways. That is to say, it never goes away, so deeply inscribed are these notions in our courses and texts, exhibitions and museums.” [5] Cinema and literary histories have not escaped these racialized notions either [6]. The Gothic has, of course, come to represent a darker, haunted side of humanity. Anne Williams adds that, “The history of commentary of the Gothic suggests that from the beginning critics have unconsciously acknowledged its especially complex, problematic status as a category.” [7] She goes on to write that sub-dividing the genre is nearly impossible, or simply ineffectual, but the Gothic inherently has something to do with gendered tensions. The gothic as a locus for explaining otherness from the patriarchal family structure is only one approach, as the term can be a descriptor for otherness in general. Describing something as Gothic immediately implies that issues of gender and race are inexplicably at stake, if one decides to seriously delve into the concept. Both of these issues will be examined in regards to the contemporary work of Cattet & Forzani.     

Before continuing on, a definition of the obscure genre known as giallo is necessary. In the opening pages of La Dolce Morte, Mikel J. Koven explains that in 1920’s and 30’s Italy, the literary genres of mystery, crime, and thriller fiction were all bound in yellow covers and stored in the “yellow” (translation: “giallo”) section of the bookstore [8]. As cinema evolved and censorship became more lenient, these stories soon became lurid tales for audiences to see projected onto movie screens. By the 60’s and 70’s, gialli turned into over the top, aural and visual graphic depictions of “shocking violence and psychosexual kink.” [9] Christopher Frayling is quoted in regards to the European co-production system of that time, in which the creators developed a “strange compulsion to make [each] film more bizarre than the last one.” [10] Indeed, while these movies do have a certain artistry to them, the rapid pace of studio production, in addition to attempts at recreating what a rival (or oneself) had already half-heartedly created previously, turned into a charnel house of nonsensical plots and extremely elaborate sex and/or death scenes. Returning to Cattet & Forzani, Cinema-Scope critic Jason Anderson writes that one reason why their “films are so alluring and unnerving is how well they tap into giallo’s fundamental core of irrationality. They invest a new elegance and a renewed vigour into the “science of plotless shock and dismemberment.” [11] This evocation of irrationality in describing giallo gets ultimately to the point. The genre marks a certain odd place in cinematic history and time, where any kind of logic was discarded to be replaced by unbridled sensuality, fear, and desire. Cattet & Forzani spent years thinking about and refining this house of horrors in order to harness the wildness and eroticism spinning around inside.

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

The irrational desire that giallo ambivalently displays, and which Cattet & Forzani strategically deploy is played out in a realm of cinematic fantasy—there is barely any attempt at representing reality. In the context of horror cinema, fantasies are not often about achieving world peace or frolicking through lush fields of grass on a perfect, sunny day; more often horror regards thoughts entering our minds that we would never act upon when acknowledging the consequences—being the subject and/or object of violent revenge, taboo sexual acts, or other indescribably perverse situations. These types of deviant phantasies [12] could be thought of as gothic, having similarities to the literary tradition and 20th century definitions of the term in regards to modern existential crisis. Instead of hiding the more perverse side of human thought and desire under a clean, normative blanket, horror cinema gives filmmakers and viewers the opportunity to exorcise the wild, violent compulsions of their un/consciences. This fundamental aspect of the genre already opens the doors to a train of thought that invites participants to playfully imagine scenes of excess and “jouissance,” scenes that may be more palatable to individuals who think and live on the margins of society’s intended hegemonic structure. The gothic has been embraced by heretics, women, queer folks, and people of color since the late eighteenth century until now; the mode of thought and lifestyle has a lineage that strives from bourgeois women such as Ann Radcliffe to confrontational, contemporary, queer black artists like M. Lamar. Negrogothic, M. Lamar’s video/installation piece, is an excellent example of evoking the intersectional confusion of gender, sexuality, and race that combines elements of the African-American experience, German Expressionism, and Hegelian philosophy to create a fantastic, haunted atmosphere. Regardless of identity, it is the ability that these individuals have to revel in perverse fantasy, which envelops them in the beautiful, treacherous area of non-normative desires.  

Still from M. Lamar’s Negrogothic.

Still from M. Lamar’s Negrogothic.

Giallo cinema is borderline gothic, but the issue that rises when examining it is the supreme ambivalence displayed in such films. The genre brings up the question of who is the gothic subject versus object. Fashion models are murdered one after the next in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964). Racism runs rampant throughout Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972). Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), the alcoholic homosexual, is dragged to his death behind a garbage truck near the ending of Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975). Such films reflect the aggression of 1970’s, Italian society, which had no qualms with depictions of brutal misogyny and murders of people deemed ‘other’. Following the example of cinematic and cultural history, giallo most often posits the woman as the ideal victim. When examined through a contemporary lens, such as that aimed by Cattet & Forzani, the often stunning aesthetic of giallo can exist in a space where women own their eroticism, and black characters gaze back at the viewer as if they are apparitions from films made 40 years ago, coming back to haunt white audiences.

Further contextualizing Cattet & Forzani’s deconstruction of gialli via the tropes and dynamics of the gothic, we can turn to Diane Long Hoeveler’s examination of Gothic Feminism, in which she writes of the earlier literary form: “the female gothic was embodied in one persistent struggle: a persecuted heroine in flight between a pastoral, bucolic past and a haunted, ominous castle.”[13] After 200 years, the medium may have changed from printed page to motion picture, but the story outline is still there. The above quote describes, more or less, the skeletal plot of the duo’s first feature film Amer. Hoeveler goes on to note, “Stated in the baldest possible terms, the voices that emerge from the works that traditionally have been identified as female gothic are concerned with delineating highly ideological struggles between “reality” (the forces of political power) and “desire” (the forces of libidinal energy).”[14] Throughout Cattet & Forzani’s films the ideologies of political power are confronted in a latent or at least unspoken way, with imagery of desire taking the forefront. For example, the intimidating power of Vincentelli (Jean-Michel Vovk), the police investigator in Strange Color is swiftly compromised by the anecdotal digression he motivates about the shameful desires of a furtive voyeur. The sequence shows how those individuals originally perceived of as having power are little more than men hiding behind two-way mirrors, as if at a peep show.  

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (2013)

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

Giallo cinema, whether it be of the supernatural or mystery variety, often uses tropes originally found in gothic literature—melodramatic romance, dark assassins, haunted spaces, but seldom does it allow for there to be such a specific, female perspective. When such films do, the movies often turn into a field day of sadistic objectification. Sylvia (Mimsy Farmer) the protagonist of Francesco Barilli’s 1974 giallo The Perfume of the Lady in Black, begins her story as an adept scientist suffering from hallucinations, but quickly falls into a trap of graphically sadistic rape scenes and her ultimate suicide. Cattet & Forzani know about the misogynistic dangers of graphic objectification, and have taken their films out of that tradition, bringing them into a place of constructivity and possibilities for new potential. While attempted rape and suicide are implied in their films, the directors always leave an ambiguity to what is going on, leaving the real horror up to the viewer’s imagination. Hoeveler notes that, “all discussions of the gothic employ by necessity the word “fantasy”. [15] With this in mind, the cinema of Cattet & Forzani should be considered an insulated world of fantasy and desire. In Amer, the main conflict deals with the female protagonist’s struggle to enact what she desires in the face of internalized social expectations. Strange Color is the story of a man plagued by horrific scenarios because his original desires become confused with objects arising out of adolescent displacement. Both movies are fundamentally about the innate horror of confronting one’s sexuality and the fantasies subsequently put in place to regulate, mutate, or facilitate this horror.       

A certain polymorphous perversity existed from the beginning of Cattet & Forzani’s filmmaking efforts. I use this term in reference to Freud’s theories on infantile sexuality—and neurotic adults—displaying a fetishized sexual attraction to objects, body parts, and things not “naturally” intended for sexual arousal—for example, a leather coat or pair of gloves. The films do not simply deal with “sex” as a physical act, but the eroticism brought to mind by virtually anything: clothing, objects, spaces, or parts of the body not usually thought of as erogenous zones. The gloves for example, usually worn by a dark, masculine figure are perhaps the defining objects of giallo cinema. Anderson writes, “Perennially stylish yet full of diabolical associations, those leather gloves have come to stand for more than just a nod to [Dario] Argento.” [16] What he means is that while Argento used the leather gloves as an indicator of imminent violence, Cattet & Forzani conflate their representational quality into one of imminent violence and sexual arousal.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (2013)

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

Having much in common with other earlier sadomasochistic women’s films such as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Amer has a kinship with such pictures as well, but Amer takes its sadomasochism down a different psychical path. Ana’s fantasies within the diegesis, as well as the extra-diegetic discrepancies between sound, image and traditional editing can be analyzed via Freud’s concept of “The Uncanny,” to show that the filmmakers are defiantly integrating horror and avant-garde techniques to tell their story. In The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, not only do more Freudian notions, this time on dream interpretation, come into play, but French Feminist Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection can explain the actions and the anti-narrative they occur within. Protagonist Dan Kristensen’s sexuality is destabilized by bloody encounters throughout the film, but the very identities of all the characters become destabilized, condensing into or clashing with each other. These films work to breathe new life into the world of horror cinema, allowing for wider perspectives to be catered to, while paying homage to and critiquing the deranged era of giallo simultaneously.

The author wishes to thank Nicole Archer, Fiona Hovenden, and Joshua Grannell

References: 

[1] Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999. p. 18

[2] Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly. Vol 44. No 4 (Summer 1991). p. 6

[3] Amer. Dirs. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani. Olive Films, 2011. DVD [autobiographical notes included therein.]

[4] Bitel, Anton. Sight & Sound; Feb 2011, Vol. 21 Issue 2, pp. 46-47.

[5] Foster, Hal. Design and Crime. London: Verso, 2003. p. 88.

[6] To quickly point out one example, H.L. Malchow does an excellent job of identifying racial metaphors in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a landmark of Gothic literature. He writes, “Certainly the silencing of Frankenstein’s creation closely parallels what Nicolas Ashton has seen as a general “silencing of the Other” in nineteenth-century Western discourse, a patriarchal insistence that African speech, like the words of women, was inherently different and less significant than that of European man.” Malchow, H.L. Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford: Stanford U Press, 1996. p. 32.

[7] Williams, Anne. “Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic.” (excerpt.) The Gothic. Ed. Gilda Williams. London: Whitechapel, 2007. p. 26.

[8] Koven, Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006. pp. 2-3.

[9] Product description for In The Folds of the Flesh (dir. Sergio Bergonzelli, 1970), “perhaps the most over-the-top ‘giallo’ in EuroCult history.” Los Angeles: Severin Films LLC, 2008.

[10] Koven, Mikel J. La Dulce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006. p. 13.

[11] Anderson, Jason. “Black, White, and Giallo: Forzani & Cattet’s The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.” Cinema-Scope, Issue 56. https://cinema-scope.com/features/tiff-2013-preview-the-strange-colour-of-your-bodys-tears-bruno-forzani-helene-cattet-belgiumfranceluxembourg/ accessed: October 20, 2015.

[12] The terms fantasy and phantasy will both be used often in this thesis, although they are not interchangeable. Phantasy refers to psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s idea, in which “phantasy emanates from within and imagines what is without, it offers an unconscious commentary on instinctual life and links feelings to objects and creates a new amalgam: the world of imagination. Through its ability to phantasize, the baby tests out, primitively ‘thinks’ about, its experiences of inside and outside. External reality can gradually affect and modify the crude hypotheses phantasy sets up. Phantasy is both the activity and its products.” The Selected Melanie Klein. Ed. Juliet Mitchell. New York: The Free Press, 1986. p. 23.

[13] Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to The Brontes. University Park: Penn State U Press, 1998. p. xiv.

[14] Ibid. p.8.

[15] Ibid. p. xvi.

[16] [A reference to director Dario Argento, one of the most well-known giallo auteurs, responsible for Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red,etc.] Anderson, Jason. “Black, White, and Giallo: Forzani & Cattet’s The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.” Cinema-Scope, Issue 56. https://cinema-scope.com/features/tiff-2013-preview-the-strange-colour-of-your-bodys-tears-bruno-forzani-helene-cattet-belgiumfranceluxembourg/ accessed: October 20, 2015.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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