Amer (2009)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-12-08 08:45

Written and Directed by: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Starring: Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud and Marie Bos

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

It doesn’t take long to figure out what the obvious inspiration for Amer is; the opening shot is an extreme close-up of an eyeball, and it’s accompanied by this frantic score that feels like a lost Goblin B-side. French directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have clearly seen a lot of giallo films (plus Suspiria), and have crafted Amer as both a bizarre tribute and take off of their style, which has been co-opted into an alluring character study. This is a film that resists a typical narrative structure--it’s highly elliptical and experimental, and often feels like three short films presented as an anthology, with the overarching style and sexual repression uniting them.

We follow Ana through three phases of her life, beginning with her days as a young girl, where she lived with her mother. This particular episode finds her trampling around her big, spooky house that’s also home to some other mysterious tenants (one of which is an older man who likes to peep in on her). The second segment has her grown into a teenager and involves a day spent with her mother out on the town, where she encounters both a young boy and a leering motorcycle gang. Finally, as an adult, Ana returns to her childhood home, only to be stalked by a homicidal maniac--maybe.

One of the bigger calling cards of the films that inspired Amer (especially Suspiria) is their eschewing of traditional plotting--there’s always some weird reason that information gets withheld (such as when we can’t hear a conversation--Amer has an instance of this early), or the story takes on a dreamlike, fractured form that keeps things off-kilter. Amer is very much like that--after seeing it, I took to Twitter, where J. Hurtado of Twitchfilm called it an “impressionist horror film,” which is the perfect description. Like its predecessors,it embraces evocative lighting and camera work to create a distinct feeling of dread and tension; it’s almost impossibly stylish from the start, and, as an exercise in pure film grammar, it’s incredible. Some sequences are jaw-dropping not only in the way they perfectly evoke the films of Argento and Bava, but also in their intensity. The film is practically without dialogue, but the amount of atmospheric tension is remarkable; you can often hear a pin drop, and you’re almost always waiting for that to happen.

I suppose the biggest problem is that you do have to wait around for that dropping pin to reveal itself. The film’s structure doesn’t lend itself to instant gratification in the least, and it really draws itself out before you begin to pick up the threads of psychosexual trauma. You catch glimpses of in the early section, where we see that the little girl is being spied upon through a keyhole; she eventually begins to investigate the corpse of an old man resting in a coffin before seeing her mother being railed violently by some guy, an act that seemingly scars her for life, leaving her bitter (as the title suggests) towards men. As she grows older, she’s always wary of the wind lifting up her skirt, and she can feel the eyes of both the little boy and the lascivious motorcycle gang undressing her as a teenager; when she’s an adult, she even imagines that her cab driver has cruel intentions for her. So it’s not wonder that she might just imagine being stalked in her own home; I think the other obvious reference point here is Repulsion. The final act is pure Polanski--suffocating, claustrophobic, frantic, and terrifying; however, when combined with the first two sequences, it feels like a broader version of that story--imagine if we’d followed Catherine Deneuve’s character from childhood, and you’ve got a good idea.

Of course, it’s hardly a fleshed out portrait, given that we spend about 30 minutes with each iteration of Ana; the structure will probably throw many for a loop, and restlessness might especially settle in during the middle section. Unlike the two bookends, it’s a little flat and drops the horror aesthetic altogether, but the camerawork still manages to highlight the seemingly predatory nature of all the men in Ana’s life. There’s a lot of close-ups on mouths that will recall the sleazy perversity of a lot of those old gialli; it’s sort of interesting how the directors here invert the gaze a bit. Their lens sometimes leers at Ana, but it more often seems to indict the characters leering at her. Those 70s films always carried a sense of casual misogyny that’s still fuelling Amer in a sense--only, this time, it’s refracted back and channeled into a distinct distrust of men. On a meta-fictional level, Amer works as a nice commentary on the women that were always in this sort of thing--often sexpots, sometimes the victim, sometimes the hysterical aggressors; Ana is all three of these, driven mad by sexual repression.

Amer is a keen film; it’s certainly relying on viewers’ familiarity with gialli, and it’d be a perfect one itself it actually, you know, had murders. Just about everything else shows up, though: black gloves, switchblades, perverts, childhood trauma, etc. Just about the only thing missing are inexplicable transsexuals. Fortunately, it’s not just some empty nostalgia trip; the bookends especially are drenched in their style (each are basically updates of haunted house thrillers and Euro-slashers, respectively), but they’re skillful recreations. The opening segment is a particularly masterful combination of James Joyce and Argento, as one gathers that this is Ana’s first, impressionable brush with both death and sex; we see her have a Joyce-like epiphany among a nightmarish display of light and sound that’s haunting and beautiful.

So, no, Amer isn’t a modern giallo--but it might as well be. Few modern horror films have been able to effectively evoke old styles and move forward in the manner it does--there’s no denying its cannibalization, but there’s also no denying its ability to make a new stew. One of the more compelling slice of life horror films in recent memory, Amer goes straight to the core of what the genre can be at its best: striking, garish, intense, visceral, and purely atmospheric. It was a festival darling for over a year, but now it’s finally come home on DVD and Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films; I sampled the standard def offering, which was fine--the transfer was detailed, clear, and vibrant, but the soundtrack was remarkable, as it spit sounds all around the room for an immersive experience. I imagine the Blu-ray would be a thrilling audio-visual experience. That’s what this one is, in a nutshell--an experience that’ll dig into your brain and stay there for a few days. Honestly, it felt like a one and done experience immediately after watching it, but, after chewing it over, I see a revisit for this one in the future. Buy it!

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