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

In my previous review of the 2015 neo-giallo Francesca, I emphasized that although the film did have a fairly standard murder-mystery plot common to films of the genre, its main attractions were the visuals, the sound design, and the painstaking care that had been taken to recreate the exact look and feel of an Italian giallo from the 1970s. That statement applies a thousand-fold to the 2013 abstract giallo deconstruction known as The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, minus the re-creation part, since this film is set in contemporary times and doesn’t attempt to appear “vintage.”

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, a husband and wife filmmaking team originally from France but based in Brussels, Belgium, made a neo-giallo called Amer in 2009, which was rather well-received by critics. I haven’t yet seen it, but by all accounts, it’s an almost plotless, experimental film that utilizes the imagery and archetypes of the giallo in order to explore themes of female sexual experimentation. Strange Color is more of the same, and is so relentlessly surreal that I’d be absolutely lying if I said I had any fucking clue what was going on in it. More than any other giallo or giallo-adjacent film I’ve ever seen, the plot, such as it is, is absolutely not the point of the exercise. Picture if David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Dario Argento’s Inferno, and Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark had a three-way in a blood-soaked attic crawlspace that was covered in Alphonse Mucha murals, and they somehow collectively gave birth to a baby that was completely made out of hallucinogens, and you’re part of the way there.

Though I would definitely not recommend this film to anyone who wasn’t a complete giallo fanatic or wildly appreciative of very experimental cinema, I found it quite mesmerizing, with its sumptuous visuals and tangent-riddled mysteries. Some of the images did become slightly repetitive, and I felt that the runtime could have been trimmed down some from its 102 minutes, but overall it’s a feast for the senses, as long as you’re watching it purely as an art piece and not as a narrative film.

I’ll try to give something of a synopsis of Strange Color, but forgive me if it sounds a bit disjointed, because I’m not entirely clear on how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, or even if they’re supposed to.

We begin with a businessman named Dan, who is returning home to Brussels after a short business trip to Frankfurt. When he arrives, the door to his spacious apartment (situated in an absolutely breathtaking art nouveau building that I want to move into immediately) is locked from the inside, but his wife is nowhere to be found. His wife, incidentally, is named Edwige, a little nod to the gorgeous Edwige Fenech, who starred in numerous gialli in the 1970s, including several directed by the aforementioned Sergio Martino.

Dan is naturally worried about where his wife has gone, and becomes even more alarmed when he sees that the phone messages he left for her on the answering machine have not been accessed since he left on his trip. He rings around to all the other tenants of the building, none of whom have seen his wife, or at least tell him that they haven’t seen her. But then, when he rings one particular apartment, a woman tells him to come to the seventh floor.

When he gets to the woman’s flat, she’s sitting in a chair waiting for him, but all he can see of her is her legs from the knees down, her black witchy boots, and her lace-gloved hands perched on the chair’s armrests; the rest of her is completely ensconced in deep, impenetrable shadow. She gives him a cup of tea, and then begins to tell him a story.

Turns out that she doesn’t exactly know where Edwige is, but she says that her husband Paul also disappeared not too long ago, under very strange circumstances. The film then goes into her story, which involves her and her husband hearing weird noises in the attic (or whatever) above their bedroom, Paul listening to the ceiling with his stethoscope (he’s a doctor), drilling a small hole in the ceiling, and then finally going up into the attic somehow to see what’s going on.

His wife, standing on the bed and peering through the hole, sees Paul’s eye and hears him asking her for matches because it’s very dark where he is. She hands some matches through the hole, and Paul seems to be looking around, but then he says something strange about “the people in here,” and then there’s a sound like a blade slashing, and a single drop of blood falls through the hole. Paul has not been seen since.

Dan doesn’t see how this story has anything to do with his missing wife, and after a bit, he leaves the creepy lady’s apartment and goes up to the roof, where he sees a naked brunette woman standing on the edge of the building, smoking. He talks to her for a minute, casual as you please. So there’s that.

Dan also calls the cops at some point, but the inspector who shows up to the apartment is very suspicious of him, especially after he says that he thinks his wife might have been taken by a bearded man that he saw going into the apartment across the hall, who the landlord says doesn’t live there. Dan even thinks he sees this same man in his own apartment, though he has no idea how the dude got in.

There’s also another strange digression involving a man in a darkroom, taking photographs of either the same brunette as the one on the roof, or another woman who resembles her. The darkroom is situated right behind this woman’s bedroom, and the photographer can see everything she does through a pane of one-way glass, though it’s not clear whether she knows it’s there or not. This particular sequence also features a mysterious woman dressed completely in red, with a red hat and a red veil covering her face.

The movie just gets more incoherent from there, and from here on out I can’t really remember in which order some of these events happened, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. For instance, Dan is woken by his doorbell buzzing, but when he looks at the security camera, it appears that he sees himself on his doorstep, asking to be let in. This scene is repeated several times, with slightly different outcomes each time, with one or more versions seeming to imply that one version of himself killed another version.

At one point, Dan seems to find Edwige’s severed head lying in bed next to him, and mentions this to police, but the head is never found or mentioned again after that.

Dan, with the help of the bearded man from earlier, discovers that the entire building is catacombed with hidden passages behind all the walls, which is how people can get into and out of all the apartments without being seen in the hallways.

Much attention is paid to a strange woman named Laura, who apparently used to live in the building, and was really into transgressive sexual practices. Though people who remember her insist that she’d be an old woman now, some version of her is evidently still around, in the guise of the ever-changing visage of the brunette women lurking around the place, appearing in unexplained photographs, and so forth. It’s speculated that Dan’s wife Edwige got involved with Laura’s “experiments” in sexual sadism, and possibly got killed because of it. It’s also barely possible, I suppose, that Dan was Laura the whole time, and the entire film is one long, hallucinatory nightmare sequence in which he finally comes to terms with this fact, though that might be just me talking completely out of my ass.

There’s a bizarre yet beautiful sequence shot entirely in black and white, and in a weird, herky-jerky style, that takes place after the landlord finds what I think is Laura’s diary. There’s a hatbox with a hat in it, that morphs into a shadow man who emerges from the hatbox and pursues a woman behind the striped wallpaper. There are also several black and white scenes of nude women having knives pressed against their skin, and one repeated image of a straight razor being brushed over a woman’s erect nipple.

A number of people get stabbed in the tops of their heads, and the subsequent stab wounds look exactly like vaginas. Extreme close-ups of eyeballs are also very common. At one point it appears as though a person climbs out of another person. A woman is fed a single pearl while she sleeps and coughs it up later. Blood droplets glitter like rubies. A naked woman’s body begins to glow like a supernova. It’s all very impressionistic and grotesque, and the images are quite provocative, but they really only seem to make sense in a purely dream-logic sort of way, which I suppose was the entire objective; this is a film of sensation, not analysis.

While there is a story thread in there about Dan, his missing wife, her forays into sexual extremes of torture and possibly madness, and the overall voyeuristic secrets and shenanigans of all the residents of the building, the apparent intention of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears was to use the iconic symbolism and visual hallmarks of the giallo to craft a multi-layered dismantling of the very essence of the genre, while also possibly telling an obtuse tale about the allure of peeking into other people’s intimate lives and the dangers of exploring the far limits of sexual power dynamics.

Or it could have been something more akin to the hilariously dismissive (though not entirely inaccurate) assessment of The Guardian, whose impatient, one-star review opened by comparing Strange Color to “a feature-length advert for a perfume that would smell like tuberose, leather and rotting meat, with top notes of fake blood and old cheese.” How you view the film is entirely up to you.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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