In a case of spectacular style over brain-splatter substance, Let the Corpses Tan delivers so many surprises so fast that I found myself wondering, only five minutes in, if directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani could sustain that level of ingenuity through the whole film.

Much to my amazement, they do. If you’re a student of film editing or screenwriting, you’re going to have fun studying this mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse flicks, and Italian giallos…

… that is, if you can stomach the violence.

I couldn’t.

After hearing some enthusiasm from reliable critics in 2018, I finally sat down to watch Let the Corpses Tan this weekend when I stumbled onto a DVD at the local public library. I hadn’t planned on making time for a movie, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to take a look at the first five minutes. Ninety-two minutes later, I was watching the end credits roll, trying to make sense of all I’d just seen.

The story… yeah, okay: As best as I can understand it, this is a movie about half-mad painter named Luce who lives in the ruins of a Catholic church — or, perhaps, a convent — on a sun-baked Italian island, where she splatters her canvases with violent expressions, incorporating, for example, bullet holes. She surrounds herself with glowering thugs — for inspiration, I suppose — who are distracted by their plots in progress. We watch some of them rob an armored car and then, as they throw bodies in the trunk and retreat back to the commune, they end up reluctantly giving a ride to desperate strangers: two women and a child.

Once the ruins are busy with unexpected guests, it’s just a countdown until the newcomers discover the foul play, or until the cops arrive to investigate the robbery and the killings. We don’t have to wait long. With the first gunshot, the game begins in earnest: a complicated shootout that runs through the afternoon, evening, and night, all the way to sunrise. The action moves so frantically, often doubling and tripling back to show us the same incident from different viewpoints, it’s hard to sort out each character’s connection to Luce’s art, her sexual exhibitionism, or her past.

And then there’s the allegorical overlay: a surrealistic spiritual warfare in which a woman is painted with gold and seemingly abused for the entertainment of unidentified male onlookers. A lot of this looks like found footage from late-60s exploitation films.

The cops arrive at the ghost town. They don’t know what they’re up against.

But I shouldn’t invest too much time in a synopsis. Dizzying in its creativity, Let the Corpses Tan is too formally inventive to be suspenseful. Its characters barely register as anyone more complicated than the role-playing descriptions for a Clue game. It’s a genre exercise par excellence, with Cattet and Forzani shifting pieces around a game board, and then finding the most invigorating shots, edits, and transitions to document their moves.

Good luck tracking all of the relationships, loyalty shifts, betrayals, and charades. It’s as deliriously fast-paced as a Guy Ritchie film, but where Ritchie busies things with slow motion and digital effects, Cattet and Forzani prefer to make low-fi magic the old-fashioned way; their style is raw, rough-edged, and, in these hot climes, radiant with oversaturated colors. And, unlike Ritchie’s films, which serve up plenty of gunplay but irresponsibly minimize carnage for the sake of crowdpleasing, this is irresponsible in its over-indulgence — it’s unflinchingly bloody, insisting on extreme close-ups of guns shoved into open mouths and fired, recalling Nicolas Windig Refn’s most graphic gore-gies. If we know what a movie loves by what it pays attention to, this movie love the destruction of human bodies. As with Tarantino’s latest, I’m thrilled by the execution, but repulsed by the, um… executions.

An Eastwood-esque stare from Luce (Elina Löwensohn) — just one of many nods to Sergio Leone in this heated showdown.

Still, I gasped when I recognized Elina Löwensohn as Luce. I haven’t seen her in many years. Her distinctive beauty charmed me in Nadja way back in 1994, and her face in close-up is still one of the most exquisitely interesting subjects in cinema.

And  I cannot deny the genius of the architecture and editing. This is extraordinary, playful, relentlessly surprising cinema; it’s easy to admire it, even if it troubles me as much as it dazzles me. Let me know when Cattet or Forzani come up with something new. I’ll want to do my research, so I know whether to be there for opening day… or dive for cover.