Three segments in the life of Ana. Firstly, when she is a girl living in a big spooky mansion, she finds a room with a dead old man and is followed by a mysterious figure dressed in black. Secondly, when she is a teenager walking through a town, both repelled and attracted by the male predators that are around her. Thirdly, when she is a woman returning to the house of her childhood which is now abandoned and dilapidated, but still inhabited by the figure in black that haunted her as a child………….
If you’re a true horror fan or just into strange and unusual cinema, you will at least be aware of the giallo subgenre that flourished in Italy throughout the 70s and even early 80s, with films boasting titles like The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire, Seven Deaths In The Cat’s Eye, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and my favourite, Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key. Essentially thrillers often with horror elements, they usually featured a black gloved maniac gruesomely killing people [usually women], a bonkers plot, insane psychology and an element of perverse sexuality. They managed to combine art and exploitation in the oddest way, with often astonishingly inventive filmmaking containing things like unusual colours, inventive editing, extreme close ups, crazy camerawork etc. Usually the main protagonist in these films was a male journalist or a cop out to catch the killer. Belgian filmmaking couple Helene Cattett and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, which means bitter in French, seems to me the result of what would happen if a giallo played out from the point of view of the murderer [and this isn’t really a spoiler, don’t worry!]. It’s both a loving tribute to the aesthetics of the genre and also a clever subversion of it. Fortunately, it’s also such a terrific piece of filmmaking that, even if you haven’t seen any giallos, it won’t matter as long as you’re up for seeing something offbeat and strange- if you like David Lynch for instance, you ought to love this movie as it has a similar feel and dream logic. I’ll emphasise one thing though-there’s hardly any dialogue,but then Alfred Hitchcock did say “a filmmaker isn’t supposed to say things, he’s supposed to show them”.
The first story is so strong that at first it seems that the rest of the film will not be nearly as good. We follow young Ana in her home, which from the outside looks just like the one in Deep Red, spying on her maid, putting up with a rather menacing mother dressed in mourning and followed by the strange black figure. The tension is incredible straight away and the effect is quite scary even if not much is happening at first. Things seem to be heightened because we are seeing and feeling them from her point of view, and you get the feeling that anything can happen. After a truly bizarre bit where Ana witnesses sex and the actual film almost appears to break down, mirroring her feelings, a plot does seem to slightly form as we encounter the very creepy corpse, with water dripping onto it like The Drop Of Water segment in Black Sabbath. Yes, it’s not just giallos that are referenced here, but I must emphasise the point that, despite all the homages, Amer is still entirely its own film. I don’t think it’s like Quentin Tarantino’s post Jackie Brown films, for instance, where it seems to me [I know many will disagree] that he thinks up all the cool bits he likes from films to put in a film of his own, then hurriedly dreams up a plot [and reams of dialogue!] to incorporate them. After a baffling finish, this part ends and we move on the second section, which is very short and seems to derive more from French soft porn movies. To be honest it isn’t that good-it’s basically Ana having men leer at her. However, the final section is incredible, a lengthy suspense sequence with bits worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, and finally climaxing in a vicious murder which is reminiscent of The New York Ripper in its razor slashing nastiness. The ending doesn’t perhaps make sense, but any conventional ending to this movie would be wrong.
There’s a really dreamlike feel to the whole movie, aided by the relative lack of dialogue. Some scenes do drag on for ages, especially the bit of Ana walking to and in her old house in the final section, which goes on forever, but I loved this aspect, it reminded me of directors like Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni, where time was often slowed down and things sometimes took forever, but one was never bored because of the tension and the atmosphere. I’m sick of the current obsession with speeding everything up anyway! This movie is shot in the very stylised way many giallos were, with lots of close ups [often of eyes], odd editing choices and odd colour schemes which sometimes go into Suspiria territory with bright use of certain colours like red and blue, and there’s also terrific use of augmented sound effects like dripping water and heavy breathing. As said before though, Amer also subverts the giallo with things like the whole film being from the point of view of the killer, having a female be the lead, and not even having much killing. Despite all this technical virtuosity and cleverness, all the film referencing [I couldn’t believe that the same film could reference both A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin and un chien undalou], and the disturbing sexual elements throughout [which occasionally sometimes seem a little overdone], the film constantly has compassion for its fragile, disturbed central character, and it’s story, which is partially about the effect of childhood trauma, and partially a twisted coming of age tale, has elements which most of us can probably relate to.
Now this isn’t really a film where the performances are especially important, but all three actresses playing Ana do a fine job in conveying her conflicting emotions, especially the young Cassandra Foret who conveys Ana’s fear and curiosity very well. There’s not much music in the film, but what there is consists of tracks from old giallo scores by people like Ennio Morricone and Carlo Savina. Now I really dislike this way of using music, in the manner of Tarantino, but it’s fair to say that many viewers will not have heard the pieces before so I suppose the filmmakers just about get away with it. Manu Dacosse’s cinematography is endlessly inventive and while it does copy the giallo style, it actually seems really fresh amidst today’s cinema. Back in the 70s films many films of this nature got major cinema releases and were very commercially successful, sadly today I think Amer will remain a cult film with limited appeal which is a shame, the multiplexes need more films like this. Maybe there’s the odd element that doesn’t quite work, and as I said the middle story isn’t all that, but this is a stunning piece of filmmaking that reminds us of how uninventive and dull many films actually are. With just one film, Cattett and Forzani have established themselves as two of the best filmmakers today and I can’t wait for their next movie.