A warning to anyone who is interested in watching Let the Corpses Tan: this is not a movie that you watch for story dynamics or even a coherent plot. This is an exercise in style through and through, and in that respect, it’s absolutely incredible. However, the way this is constructed is so chaotic, so disinterested in holding the viewer’s hand, that those seeking to engage it on a deeper level will likely feel frustrated. This is a valid reaction. This is also precisely the wrong approach. Let the Corpses Tan should only be taken on a moment to moment basis, and should be expected to wash over the viewer rather than envelope them. If you take this approach, you will be treating yourself to one of the most exciting film experiences of 2018.
The basic plot, as I understand it, is this: A group of criminals have robbed an armored car of its gold and are now hiding out in a small Mediterranean retreat. Already there, is an artist (and maybe crime lord), her lawyer, and a writer. While returning from the robbery, the criminals pick up the writer’s wife, child, and maid. When the group arrives at the retreat after their crime, they find that a duo of cops have followed them, and a feature length shootout/standoff begins, complete with double crosses, triple crosses, and a fair amount of surreal flashbacks. Basically, it’s Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire with ten times the style and none of the clarity (no love lost to Free Fire, which rules).
Note: I could be completely wrong about the specifics of the plot, but it really doesn’t matter.
Co-writers/Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have chosen to eschew typical narrative in exchange for an aggressive deconstruction of formalism, painted in the glowing blues of a cloudless sky, the twinkling glint of gold, sand, and at times, urine, and the syrupy red of blood en masse. The faces of characters are often limited to just their eyes, their identities not so much obscured, but relegated to existing only in our assumptions. With quick edits being applied to static shots, the dynamics of a single scene can change in an instant, and often do as the audience’s brains race to catch up with just what is happening. Not that it’s cryptic per se – more so that it’s priming the viewer to meet the pace required to survive a gunfight.
A tool used to keep the audience savvy enough so as to not retreat entirely is the in-scene time jump. Just about every escalation is shown at least three times from three different perspectives, with title cards (eg: “17h22m”) being used to guide the timeline. Really, these cards are unnecessary, as it’s the impeccable sound design which does the heavy lifting here. For example, a scene which introduces a duo of cops to the situation has one of them sliding a curtain open to a darkened room, and immediately taking a bullet to the eye. The sound of the gunshot and her subsequent yelp of pain marks the end of the sequence. A title card resets the clock. We now see the same moment from inside the room, where a gangster and an artist have just finished having sweaty sex against a gross slab of meat. We hear the sound of the curtain being pulled open, we see the gangster fire his gun. We hear the yelp of pain. The sequence ends a second time, and the same title card is posted once again. Now we see cop number two at a location some distance from what we just saw. He hears the curtain, the gunshots, and the scream. The sound is what indicates the replay, not the title card (which is in military time anyway, making it a little tough to dip into on a dime, given that it’s not the system I am accustomed to).
By showing us three different perspectives, it gives the viewer an ironic insight into the actions of each character. We know what they know as well as what they don’t… at least in the precise moment. As for the big picture, the chaos makes it tough to find the motivations of any one character short of “stay alive, get the gold.” And it’s very easy to lose track of who is who, due to the complete lack of exposition, and an unwillingness on the part of the script to bullet point any names or identities. In this sense, each and every scene could be a profoundly effective short film, given that such a form would not require as much narrative cohesion as a feature, but this isn’t to say that the film’s length is a mistake. As I said earlier, it’s best to take this moment by moment.
If you try to fight the tiger, you won’t win, but if you learn to dance with the tiger…
Once I came to terms with the fact that this movie was not to meant to be grappled with so much as experienced, the concerns of the filmmakers became clear as day. This is not an exploration of crime, revenge, violence, art, or anything that movies like this are typically concerned with. This is an exercise in style, and Cattet/Forzani are masters of their unique brand. It’s a style that no one else is pursuing as aggressively or with such artistic disdain toward cinematic convention. This visual/auditory open-handed smack to the face is an exciting prospect, and I wonder if the duo will ever try something more conventional. I wonder if I’d even want them to.
Those familiar with the source novel of will likely find more to grasp onto plot/story-wise, but it’s unfair to judge a film as a companion piece when it is not put forth as such. I would, however, like to read it. But first I’ve got to watch the movie again because all hemming and hawing aside, Let the Corpses Tan is awesome!
Let the Corpses Tan opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.