It is criminal that the idiosyncratic genre decoupage that was the acid western, a cryptic metaphoric subgenre that mixed classical and spaghetti-western traditions with the self-destructive nihilism and experimentation of the late sixties’ counterculture, failed to survive past its auspicious arthouse start.
Though typified by the works of Jordorowsky and Hellman and carried into the new millennium by the likes of Jarmusch, the mantle has fallen out of use in favor of the more metacritical and critically acclaimed revisionist western. Picking up and dusting off the mantle is the hard-boiled sensory overload of Let the Corpses Tan, the latest directorial effort from duo Helena Cattet and Bruno Forzani, which pits an outlaw gang of marauders against their cannibalistic greed in the desolate ruins lost somewhere in the Mediterranean desert.
With the ruins once serving as the home of a free-love cult of which the owner of the safehouse (Elina Lowensohn) was once a part, the hyper-violent double-crossing on the land imbued with the idealist ghost of the 1960s confirms the Jean-Patrick Manchette adaptation to be eligible for the subgenre but in a way also elucidates the shortcomings of said genre all at once.
Matriarch Luce, an artist whose medium befittingly involves random paint splats and firearms on canvas, unknowingly takes in a group of jaded thieves who aim to rob an armored truck carrying several million in gold bars and hide out on her cavernous, decrepit estate until the heat dies out. The tensions are immediate with all players wound up to the nth degree while maintaining the facade of professionalism as to not tip off Luce to their design.
Stuck to these desperados of little charisma, Cattet and Forzani indulge themselves in their intimate, narrative-decentering, visual language, which overzealously attempts to alter your perceptions through needless but thrilling experimentation. As hackneyed as it sounds, the film’s commitment to a bold, avant-garde outlook that plays loosely and freely with the cinematography and editing is akin to a strain of psychotropic.
There’s a kind of freewheeling visual association at work in Cattet and Forzani’s gangster shootout that deliberately harkens back to the gritty surrealism of the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, which is all rather thrilling to see unfold.
Their ambitions of the eye falter when paired with their ability to convey a proper story, as all surreal films inevitably do, and Let the Corpses Tan becomes a bit of an incoherent mess by the time the heist has been pulled and the greed has eroded their camaraderie and involved them in an all-day gunfight between the police and each other. Once coupled with Cattet and Forzani’s preference of a loose narrative played predominantly through action rather than dialogue, the crosses, double crosses, team ups and loyalties that plague this relatively large group (4 or so gang members, an author, his wife and family, Luce, and two police officers who kick off the gunfight) almost make a previous knowledge of the source material a must.
Trapped in its Mexican-standoff structure that supersedes any attempt to build the relationships between these characters beyond who can help who take the gold for themselves, following the trajectory of the narrative wasn’t as much of a challenge as finding a reason to care when it found that trajectory. Though properly frantic and capable of ratcheting up the anxiety the closer the subgroups within this gang drift closer to killing one another, the suspense is somewhat moot by a two-pronged attack of undeveloped characters and an indulgent visual style that leaves much of the action illegible.
Isolated as they are, a dynamic never forms among them beyond the perennial and universal pursuit of the golden macguffin, and though all are played with the maverick swagger of Tarantino-assassin types, there is nothing to connect to among all their gun-spinning, cavalier attitudes.
Equally desultory is the film’s increasing reliance on visual idiosyncrasy for its appeal. When, in the heart of the third act and in an effort to really become enraptured with the plot of deception and double-cross, Cattet and Forzani’s disposition toward obscuring your perception with lucid angles and hyper-sensory flow prove antithetical to the story.
Let the Corpses Tan proves itself trapped between its acid-western origin point and its generic shoot-em-up plot structure, unable to artistically rectify the two poles of its superficial identity. Though audacious and enjoyably violent, the return to the acid western does not prove fruitful for Cattet and Forzani, whose arthouse posturing muddy up a perfectly good heist film.