Based on the evidence of their early shorts and first two features – 2009’s Amer and 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – Belgian filmmakers Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet have internalized the tropes of the giallo to such a degree that they don’t need to quote directly from the films that inspire them. Rather, by stripping the plots of their neo-gialli to the bare essence, Forzani and Cattet give themselves license to explore the visual and auditory hallmarks of the genre and interrogate its gender politics. (Meanwhile, their current film, Let the Corpses Tan, takes its cues from a different Italian sub-genre altogether – the spaghetti Western.)
Set almost entirely within the walls of a forbidding apartment building, Strange Color takes this deconstructive tendency to its furthest extreme by folding several miniature stories into its main plot, which revolves around a man who returns home from a business trip to find his wife missing. The man in question is Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange), who, when pressed, says he’s in the telecommunications business, but clear communication turns out to be beyond his capabilities as he frantically tries to get to the bottom of what’s happened to his wife, Edwige (the namesake of giallo fixture Edwige Fenech, star of Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, among others). What makes the mystery especially baffling is there was no sign of forced entry – and in fact the chain was on the door when he got home. This perplexes not only Dan, but also Inspector Vincentelli (Jean-Michel Vovk), who’s about as useful as policemen tend to be in these films.
Before the inspector even shows up, though, Dan has a few bizarre encounters with his neighbors, starting with the old woman in #7. Dressed in black lace and enshrouded in shadows that keep her face hidden, she regales him with the story of her missing husband, who became so obsessed with the noises coming from the floor above that his curiosity got the better of him. Vincentelli, meanwhile, has his own story to spin about when he was a private detective hired by “a man who worried about his wife,” much like Dan. With its emphasis on two-way mirrors, surveillance cameras, and secret rooms, Vincentelli’s tale echoes the old woman’s and prefigures Dan’s disorienting nightmare, which comes at Strange Color’s midpoint, neatly cleaving the film in two.
Before that rupture occurs, Forzani and Cattet include the requisite scenes of female nudity, which were standard in ’70s gialli, but the spin they put on them is all their own. Take Dan’s rooftop exchange with the self-possessed Barbara, an alluring woman who’s completely blasé about being naked in the presence of a stranger. (Later, when they have sex, Barbara demonstrates just how rough she likes it.) Then there are the stylized, black-and-white inserts of Edwige engaging in erotic knife play with a faceless partner wearing a black leather coat and gloves (perhaps the genre’s most recognizable signifiers). Perhaps even more provocative is Vincentelli’s recollection of being able to remove the clothing of the woman he’s watching with the push of a button, but this seeming ability to control her turns out to be illusory at best.
The same goes for Dan’s grip on reality, as evidenced by the disturbing dream he has not long after the mystery of Edwige’s disappearance takes a disturbing turn. Recapitulating the voyeurism theme, Forzani and Cattet start the sequence from the vantage point of someone spying on Dan asleep in bed. And the surveillance thread come back when Dan stumbles to the door and, picking up the phone, sees himself outside. “Who is it?” Dan asks. “It’s me,” his doppelgänger replies, looking nervously over his bare shoulder. “Open up! Quick!” When Dan presses the button to let himself in, though, the buzzer goes off, waking him up again. This time when he picks up the phone, he asks what his other self wants. “I want to help you!” comes the answer. “There’s somebody inside… who wants to kill you!”
When Dan #2 hangs up, Forzani and Cattet cut to a long shot, isolating him on the extreme left side of the screen, making him look completely vulnerable. As he backs away from the door and into the next room, he’s plunged into darkness where another double confronts him and slashes him with a razor as he retreats back to the entranceway. There he frantically stabs at the button, which sets off the buzzer and awakens him a third time. When he picks up the phone, though, he discovers that whoever was outside has already gained entrance to the building. Backing away from the door again, Dan #3 is confronted by the sight of a naked, uncircumcised man sitting in a chair, his upper body in shadow. When the man slumps forward and falls onto the floor, though, Dan #3 sees that it’s his second iteration, the one that was slashed to death. Not wishing to be another victim, Dan #3 jumps out the window and hides from himself, but is mysteriously choked to death in the underbrush.
This leaves this other Dan (whichever one he is) still in the apartment, hiding in the darkness when the buzzer goes off, revealing him to be the one spying on himself. In a desperate attempt to end the cycle, Dan slashes himself to death before the new Dan can make it to the door, only to find himself in the same position Dan #3 was in. Ever vigilant, the remaining Dan keeps his razor at the ready, but this does him no good as his body is taken over from within. An unsettling chain of events to be sure, and one that leaves Dan even more confused once he emerges from this apparent fugue state.
Suffice it to say, things don’t get much clearer after that, although the apartment building does yield up a few of its secrets. There’s even an explanation for the film’s nonsensical-sounding title, which Forzani and Cattet wait until the very last moment to reveal. When it comes to this pair’s films, patience is often the highest virtue.