I know very little of giallo, having only really experienced its particularly European blend of erotica and horror through Berberian Sound Studio. So I am unsure what made me buy a copy of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears in HMV* last year. Maybe I’d read about it somewhere. Or maybe I just liked the name and the pretty DVD case. Maybe it was just because I was lurking in the world film section and it caught my eye. Maybe. But no-one else in the house really wanted to watch it, and so I had to wait until I was alone and not frantically busy. The opportunity finally arose on Thursday last, and as it happens, I’m glad I watched it on my own.
Whilst Berberian Sound Studio begins as a film about the making of a giallo, and slowly transforms into one, Strange Colour grabs the viewer by the delicate parts and shoves genre tropes at them unremittingly. Perhaps that’s one reason it split reviewers, and why Berberian Sound Studio garnered more critical success. Unlike Berberian – a wonderful film in its own right, and certainly more musically inventive, but essentially a rather gentle, middle-class liberal take on the giallo form – Strange Colour offers no consolation or orientating frame.
From the beginning, the viewer is led into a depraved fantasy: scenes of the protagonist, Dan Kristensen, heading home from a business trip, are intercut with a black and white world where a woman – his wife, Edewige – is enjoying her subjugation to the ministrations of an unseen knife-holder. The knife sequence repeats throughout the film, becoming increasingly graphic, and as much murderous as sexual. When Dan arrives home, he finds Edewige missing, and his apartment locked from the inside. Almost immediately, the film descends into a complex and ambiguous narrative, which is either a story of madness or the supernatural: I don’t think I want to know which, but I enjoy the speculation.
The story has been accused of being slight and confused. To some extent, this is true, but to view this as a problem misses the point, or points, of the structure: story is only an integral part of story, not of film, or even written prose; and to suggest that for a narrative to be compelling it must be simple to follow seriously limits the options of creators in terms of their ability to generate effect, tone and mood. Atmospheres, writes Bohme,
are neither something objective, that is, qualities possessed by things, and yet they are something thinglike, belonging to the thing in that things articulate their presence through qualities – conceived as ecstasies. Nor are atmospheres something subjective, for example, determinations of a psychic state. And yet they are subjectlike, belong to subjects in that they are sensed in bodily presence by human beings and this sensing is at the same time a bodily state of being of subjects in space**
Atmosphere, then, is perceptual, partially indescribable: words, and indeed story, are limited in how they can express what we might call the carnal nature of environmental character. Strange Colour is a film which has about it a deep physicality and ineffability, and thus a kind of antaeic magic.***
Strange Colour is not supposed to be easy to follow. As a depiction of the time-lapses involved in mental breakdown, drunkenness or drug-use, and the swirl of thoughts inside nightmares, it demands disorientation. The viewer is positioned more closely towards the perspective of a character than they are towards an omniscient narrator or external passive viewer. An easy to follow narrative can assume particular characteristics of a reader or viewer – that they are reading without being active, needing to be told the story rather than piece together ideas for themselves. Strange Colour, on the other hand, demands what Barthes called a ‘writerly’ reader – one actively involved in the meaning-making of the media being presented, becoming, as a consequence, a kind of vicarious character in their own right****. They inhabit the minds of each of the individuals whose nightmares are being presented – making the film even more disorienting, as there is no singular point of reference or perspective. Even the individual who is our ostensible protagonist, Kristensen, cannot be trusted: we do not know how reliable he is, and neither, it appears, does he. The fragmented, if partially progressive, dramatic structure enhances this – as he looses his grip on conventional reality and time, so do we.
I’ve already suggested that soundtrack is not the film’s most innovative point – it seems to borrow a lot from Sergio Leone scores, stylistically and perhaps actually. But the music is evocative in the context of Strange Colour – its overblown orchestration complimenting the general themes, visual as well as contentual, of over-indulgence. It’s Spaghetti Western associations evoke that sense of emptiness and paranoia – as well as the violence – which characterises films such as For A Few Dollars More.
It also recalls the landscapes of those films – beautiful, but full of threat and deception. The gorgeous art nouveau apartment in which the action takes place is catastrophically decadent: alluring, but wicked, and very much a character in its own right. The visual styling of the film overall, with its use of natural colour, filters, and black and white, and the beautifully disturbed use of holes in ceilings and breathing, palpably living walls, recalls my first experiences of del Torro – Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone. This is also one thing critics seem to agree on – Strange Colour looks stunning. So stunning, in fact, that even the most gruesome images – including suggestively shaped cranial stab wounds – are as compelling as they are repugnant.
One could accuse Strange Colour of objectifying women if one consid
ered only the opening sequence. But that would be to ignore the odd and manipul
ative Dora, who lives upstairs and advises Kristensen that all is not well in the building, and Laura of Room 7, who’s enraged spirit seems to be the perpetrator of these crimes and psychoses. These women are more complex than the conventional understanding of the female in horror – this conventional understanding itself perhaps simplistic, born from a fear of female
Verite called Strange Colour ‘a hallucinatory, mind-expanding experience’. Indeed, I am only able to think through it in the same detached fashion in which one attempts to recall and make sense of a drunken night at a club or house party, and it has left me with that same dissociative feeling that lingers for a few days after such a night. I’m waiting for the walls to breathe. sexuality and desire. The women in Strange Colour are damaged, but more than victims, humanly vulnerable, and in various stages of control, and/or insanity. In this case it is Kristensen who is the most exposed and manipulated character – tossed like a ragdoll on the waves of someone else’s nightmare – perhaps the nightmare of the building itself, or the multiple dreamscapes of its many inhabitants. Eventually, he walks behind the walls to find a hidden world, parts of the building lost when it was transformed into apartments from a single dwelling, and where he, and several others, meet a rather bloody, eroticised, demise. This is a film in which human existence is subject to passion, and where the protagonist is no hero, or even significant – ultimately, he is just a pawn, through the eyes of whom we happen to witness the effects of something more than desire.
*Other record shops are available. Please support them.
**Gernot Böhme, ‘Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics’, Thesis Eleven, 36, 1993, 113-126, pp.113-114
***Mattias Ekman, ‘Architecture for the Nation’s Memory: History, art and the Halls of Norway’s National Gallery’, in Macleod, et al., Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions, (London: Routledge, 2012), pp.114-156, p.148
****Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1974), p.4