Making a splash on the festival circuit with their feature debut Amer (2009), Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani stunned critics and audiences alike with a fully formed signature style that instantly garnered attention. Presenting three key episodes in the life of a woman as an audiovisual symphony in three movements – consisting almost exclusively of climactic bits of virtuoso mise en scène – the directorial duo’s echt-surrealistic verve, audacious formal gambits and technical prowess were universally acknowledged, even by detractors. For while supporters argued that Cattet and Forzani scaled new heights in pure cinematic expression within a genre framework, the opposing parties saw an excess of form over content – to Cattet and Forzani’s categorical disagreement, “But the form is the content!”

That statement was delivered with their typical sense of humour: Cattet and Forzani’s unmistakable style may be the most distinguishing feature of their work, at least on first glance, but for all their pronounced formal chops, they have little interest in art for art’s sake – or, more recently, genre for genre’s sake. Yet, in the same way that Cattet and Forzani’s film enthusiasm was sparked by deeply evocative movies that allow you to connect film fantasy with real ideas about life and art, their own work, despite all its baroque diversions, leaves the audience with questions about itself, and the fears and desires tucked away in each viewer’s brain. The misunderstanding of Cattet and Forzani as formalists marks a changed time, in which plot synopses and unpacking vague but marketable buzzword ‘themes’ govern film discourse, and where films themselves – why, how they are made and what they provoke in the audience – are treated almost like an afterthought.

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

Amer (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2009)

Amer provides a perfect example. Each of its three movements can be boiled down to one ‘pitch’ sentence. Little Ana (Cassandra Forêt) is haunted by a black-veiled presence in her parent’s villa after grandpa’s death and, fleeing from her visions, discovers her parents having sex. Adolescent Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud) takes a shopping trip to town with her mum and during various encounters experiences the ambivalent lure of her sexual attraction (for which she gets slapped). Grown-up Ana (Maris Bos) returns to the villa after a long absence and is haunted again, in an even more dangerous game of desire and death, with a featureless black shape.

Although these descriptions signify the cornerstones of the film’s construction and vaguely define its thematic eros-thanatos-core and proximity to the horror genre, they do not give the slightest idea about the riotous and hypnotic mindfuck-nature of Amer, which plunges forward through a quick succession of scenes and moments – sometimes delicately languorous or eerily slow, at others shockingly brief and assaulting – that in their bold audiovisual construction communicate ideas (or rather: mind-images, connected to sounds) directly to the brain even before these thoughts have been re-translated into verbal language. The middle part of the film – the shortest, but also the most radical (you could sum it up unheedingly as “the everyday filmed as horror”) – is a delicious example, turning already the first few minutes of mother and daughter walking side-by-side under blazing Riviera sunlight into a complex, colorful ballet of observations and minute gestures bespeaking hidden, erotically charged feelings of curiosity, jealousy and probing dependence, skilfully arranged to – and cunningly counterpointed by – the alluring dribble of Stelvio Cipriani’s bubbly music.

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

Amer (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2009)

Cattet and Forzani’s films are full of staggering moments that beg to be literalised into phrases as an afterthought, like “seeing through somebody else’s eyes” or “the hail of bullets seemed to tear the dress from her body”. But doing so diminishes the lyrical beauty, staggering invention and ambiguous, possibly even contradictory deeper meanings that Cattet and Forzani have conjured by their surprising presentation, with unexpected links between images (and sounds) suddenly blossoming like exotic flowers. Not to mention the couple’s casual ability to transgress, usually within the first few seconds of a film, any conventional notion of the distinction between reality and hallucination. Despite resolutely resisting customary psychologisation (in fact, the houses and landscapes in which the films are set, and various key objects within, qualify as entities of at least equal importance to the dramatis personae), they conflate the outer and inner lives of their protagonists to a degree that challenges viewers to come up with their own explanations. For all its ravishing, show-stopping and brain-stalling cinematic ecstasy, Cattet and Forzani’s body of work is stuff to think about.

Although by no means necessary, it is helpful to traverse these terrains of thought with some knowledge about their key inspirations, without reducing Cattet and Forzani’s work to a sensuous aggregate of influences, which they see as an extension of the freedom they encountered in genre pictures of the 1960s and ‘70s. A lasting mark on Cattet and Forzani was left by the Italian cinema of the era straddling the line between art and exploitation as popular genres came and went, their short-lived heydays giving free rein to unconventional experimentation: from stylised Spaghetti Westerns to diverse varieties of poliziotteschi procedurals and horror offerings, and the centrepiece for the Cattet and Forzani aesthetic contributed by giallo, whose devices were already applied deliriously by maestri like Mario Bava or Dario Argento, crafting something closer to trance-like audiovisual dream-states than ‘mere’ movies.

True autodidacts and energised by the cinematic possibilities of giallo ingredients, the couple embarked on a handful of home movies after the beginning of their romantic partnership – establishing a vocabulary on which they drew for their more complex full-length endeavours. Comparably crude, but undeniably effective, Cattet and Forzani’s earlier short films Catharsis (2001), Yellow Room (Chambre jaune, 2002), The End of Our Love (La fin de notre amour, 2003), and The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow (L’étrange portrait de la dame en jaune, 2004), on a first look may feel like no-budget tributes by talented fans. Yet their carefully composed flow of images, joined in lovingly belaboured marriage with equally exacting post-synch sounds, both obsessively condense and deconstruct the formulas to a degree that makes each rousing cut and perplexing change of point of view, with every eerie sound and desperate scream a hyper-size demonstration as well as a distorted, anamorphic, reflection of the normative application. (Cattet and Forzani do for giallo what Hitchcock did for suspense: become model exegete and meta-commentator at the same time).

It is clear that through these shorts Cattet and Forzani established a mysterious, erotic, and potentially endless universe of death and desire in which murderous time loops and sinister spatial labyrinths pulsate in prismatic primary colours and the transgressive swirl inherent in giallo’s grammar gets sucked into a hallucinogenic vortex, proposing associations in the brain before they become words. Drawing on both the giallo’s stylistic originality and its thematic preoccupations, which are mutated into extended, wordless set-pieces dominated by close-ups of eyes, Cattet and Forzani films double as catalogues of all possibilities of the cinematic gaze – not in the sense of a manual, but as feverish, trembling poetry. The eyes – the character’s and the viewer’s – watch as blades and flesh, bondage and caress, light and dark, splintering noises and deadly silences, etc., form an allusive round-robin of astonishing density, a whirl from which emerge paradoxically seamless cut-up fantasies of hitherto largely untapped cinematic options.

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

Yellow Room (Chambre jaune, 2002)

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

The Strange Portrait of the Lady in Yellow (L’étrange portrait de la dame en jaune, 2004)

The giallo influence even extends to the special look and feel of old analogue cinema – with a few short exceptions, Cattet and Forzani have insisted to shoot on (preferably Super-16mm-’Scope) film, as the material’s effects and alleged defects are part of their cinematic memory-experience. But it is not an exclusive key to the Cattet and Forzani universe, which draws on many disciplines and continents: their next project may be a sex film in the spirit of Japanese erotica, realised as photographed animation or illustration rather than staged live-action, to draw on the full possibilities of storyboarded découpage. Consider their two Yellow shorts which, made with diapositive slides, deliberately evoke the still photography technique used in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and predict the standout photonovel-style passages seen in their later features  just one example for Cattet and Forzani’s true surrealist spirit, which extends beyond their approach to story construction and filmic ideas: following a Belgian tradition that includes many names from painter René Magritte to national film pioneer Charles Dekeukeleire stretching across many arts.

Similarly, The End of Our Love is also a six-minute “giallo revision” of Arnaud Desplechin’s talky three-hour achievement My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument (Comment je me suis disputé… [ma vie sexuelle], 1996) and many different forking paths – including the one taken, applying the giallo lessons to a waitress-patron encounter in Santos Palace (2006) for a professionally produced calling card short – lead from there to the garden of dark delights that is Amer. Adding retro choice cuts by Italian soundtrack composers like Stelvio Cipriani or Ennio Morricone to the sound design in their features sealed a flavoursome deal that has led to a certain typecasting: again favouring heightened sensual impact and oneiric mood over conventional plot necessities, Amer’s follow-up (and ‘male’ complement) The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps, 2013), established Cattet and Forzani as foremost practitioners of what is termed neo-giallo.

However, unlike other major players in this millennium’s wave of films walking the tightrope between fantastic genre and ambitious art fare – Peter Strickland, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Lucile Hadžihalilović, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, or their compatriot Fabrice Du Welz) – Cattet and Forzani stretch the narrative possibilities suggested by their forebears into the realm of nightmarish reverie, and aim for a kind of total cinema in a language of their own. It’s instructive to look at two more recent shorts made around the time of their second feature: O is for Orgasm, their contribution to the anthology ABCs of Death (2012), is almost a test run for certain breakthrough effects in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears and its journey into the past (which faintly evokes the titular mindspace-villa of Jean Ray’s classic 1943 novel Malpertuis as well as Harry Kümel’s eponymous 1974 film adaptation), while the four-minute ‘recut’ Dario Argento (made for the short film magazine Blow Up of Franco-German TV station arte in 2013) condenses the work of the Italian horror idol into pure Cattet and Forzani-poetry, even as they did not shoot a single frame.

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

On the set of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2013). © Yves Bemelmans.

Dario Argento’s scary-swooning mini-symphony of teary waterfalls, deceptive and decapitating glass panes, blades and blood and gloves and mouths, (key)holes and eyes, clarifies not only Cattet and Forzani’s dialectic approach to film history, never replicating an idea, but creatively reinventing it for their purposes (the unforgettable sweltering heat cab-ride in the last part of Amer upending the rain-soaked taxi trip from Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, or his repeated blocking trick of unveiling the murderer’s silhouette turned onto its head in flash-frame replacement visions and shadowy suggestions of doubles in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). It also reinforces how Cattet and Forzani’s audiovisual music of razor blades and dream displacements emerge as unique filmic objects, arguably as aligned to, say, the structural innovations of experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits as to (undisputed) giallo grandmaster Argento.

Introduction Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani

Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017)

Ultimate proof of Cattet and Forzani’s expansive, yet completely personal approach comes with their latest coup, Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres, 2017). Foregoing the giallo associations, but not their artistic upbringing (Spaghetti Western features as prominently as the Nouveau réalisme of Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely), they’ve translated the eminently visual, stridently behaviourist, and willfully absurdist 1971 crime novel of the same name about a Mediterranean siege situation by anarchic innovator Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid into a quintessential Cattet and Forzani package: as a literary adaptation, it comes across as remarkably faithful and freely idiosyncratic at once, following the book almost to the letter (right down to its breathless countdown structure), while subtly revising many elements (like its gender politics) and generally treating the material as a canvas for distinctive, psychedelic action painting.

Like Cattet and Forzani, Manchette combined formal rigour and popular forms to single-handedly inaugurate the French crime revival in the 1970s. Still a somewhat neglected figure in the English-speaking world despite a few recent translations (which, alas, do not include Let the Corpses Tan), Manchette continued – and perfected – the dry, subversive and blackly comic outlook already evident in his debut throughout nine subsequent novels published within the next decade. Inspired by the American hardboiled style inaugurated by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as well as situationist thinking, he modernised the roman noir based on deep knowledge of (and enthusiasm for) crime literature and Marxist historical analysis. For Manchette, the work of Hammett and his peers had been the logical reaction to a capitalist and corrupt system, with the hopes for class struggle, not to mention revolution, dashed after WWI. His own fiction updated this disillusioned worldview for the post-68 era and the excesses of consumer society: in Let the Corpses Tan, the escalating confrontations between low-level gangsters and upscale types are basically the perverted last vestige of class warfare.

Manchette’s anarchist leanings are a perfect match for Cattet and Forzani’s surrealist sensibility, his vivid prose ideally suited for translation into Cattet and Forzani’s audiovisual assaults, while a shared sense of humour and iconoclasm cinches the corrosive outlook: Even as they transform Manchette and Bastid’s no-frills style into a vibrant series of explosive and allusive pop-art-crescendos (and crucially put the alcoholic and nymphomaniac female artist ironically sidelined in the novel front and centre, making her into something of a mythic goddess), Cattet and Forzani retain the original’s subversive notions and straightforward plotting, yet translate it into their unmistakable language, strongly emphasising erotic and plastic aspects. Approaching action-thriller mechanics like they did giallo – as a basis for personal poetry – Cattet and Forzani keep building multi-layered series of violent and sensual impressions that resonate on many levels: Take, for instance, their use of the colour gold, which is both painterly (in terms of colour, it forms a leitmotif, along with blood-red, with both colours mixing to abstract effect during various, highly stylised shootouts) and highly metaphorical – from the gold fever caused by the bullions the protagonists fight about to the golden showers featuring prominently elsewhere.

With just three features under their belt, Cattet and Forzani already seem worthy of comparison to that famous British duo Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, who drew on all kinds of artistic concepts for their classics like The Red Shoes (1948) to define their own kind of total cinema, achieving a filmic language that remains as original, unconventional and at times positively puzzling as it is satisfying and rousing – something special that amounts to a gesamtkunstwerk.