Amer (Cattet, Forzani, 2009)

Woah.  Where did Amer come from?  This is perhaps the sexiest, most technically jarring film I’ve seen in a long time.  If you like slasher films, specifically giallos, bold color schemes, synth-driven, Goblin-reminiscent soundtracks…then this is for you.

Remember when Gaspar Noe came out with the postmortem acid trip Enter the Void not too long ago?  I didn’t love that film, but its technical prowess (stretched out over a way too long 161 minutes) was its strong point.  Even that eventually got old though and, around minute 110, when Noe’s camera again lifted and floated over Tokyo I thought that it should have ended 20 minutes earlier.

One of Amer’s strengths is its length.  The film clocks in at just under 90 minutes, making all of its technical showiness and bravado still entirely effective once the credits are rolling.  While it’s obvious that Amer owes much to the Dario Argentos of the world, it would be remiss to say that it’s not equally indebted to the montage of an Eisenstein or a Bruce Conner and the repression of early Roman Polanski.  The formal concerns in this film are far more important than any plot.  It’s a tour-de-force of framing and editing, and the remarkable sounds – the creak of leather gloves, the low, unexplained din of a bedroom, a razor blade scraping against teeth, the teeth of a comb – all add up to something that is as aurally uncomfortable and exploratory as some of its bolder composition.

Any fan of giallos can give you a definition of some of its outstanding qualities, particularly as they relate to Argento: the killer point-of-view, black gloves, the hand rearing back before slashing with a knife.  Those qualities are all here, but directors Cattet and Forzani add in so much more technique including pixilation, double exposure (though done digitally) and color tinting.  Some of the more sexual and sensual moments in here feel less like a giallo than Polanski (particularly his Repulsion or Knife in the Water), but also could play like the opening few shots of the sex scene in Cemetery Man.

The film follows Ana, played as a young girl, a teenager, and a woman by Cassandra Foret, Charlotte Eugene Guibeaud, and Marie Bos respectively, in her experiences in a creepy old house and interactions with men.  The three acts are essentially divided in this chronology.

Act I features the young Ana.  This section, as with most of the film, is almost entirely dialogue-free.  The sound is hyper-realized to fill the void left by minimal speaking.  Young Ana is in the large, isolated house with her mother and father, her grandfather who recently died, and his former caretaker, a woman her mother accuses of being a witch.  Ana is curious and she frequently moves in and out of the rooms of the maze-like house, spying through keyholes and watching the goings-on.  One of the goings-on is her parents having sex, an event that literally fractures the girl.  Literally meaning: Ana opens the door.  We get a cut to her parents.  First to her mother, and the image of the woman triples in an assortment of colors.  Then back to Ana and her own face splinters with the sound of glass breaking.  Then back to her father, on top of her mother, and his image triples in the same multi-colored arrangement.  Back to Ana and the splintered pieces of her face fall to the floor, shattering.  Sound experimental and hallucinatory?  Good, because it is.  There are very few wide-shots in Amer.  I haven’t seen this many extreme close-ups in one film since a Sergio Leone finale.

Young Ana is also obsessed with her dead grandfather who is stretched out, leathery face, fingers and all, on a bed in a first-floor room.  In particular, she wants a pocket-watch that is still clutched in his dying hands and she’ll go to nearly any means – including breaking off one of his decaying fingers – to get it.  The witch, however, wants the watch too, to the extent that when the watch is open, the witch seems to be endowed with supernatural powers and the grandfather comes back to life.  This is all told in a series of bizarre shots and occurrences that include a great sequence with Ana under her grandfather’s bed, the base of it squeezing her into the ground and a pile of glass (or is it salt) that is underneath, as her mother and the witch argue above.

Act I also features a seal-like, possibly human creature crawling atop Ana’s ceiling, and one of the few wide-shots that reveal the full space and production design of the room.  The production design, as a side note, recalls the excellent gothic design that went into the underrated film The Orphanage, with its deeply colored wallpaper, pockets of light, and finely detailed furniture.  Young Ana’s room is also designed with a keen eye for perspective making everything much taller and wider than it feels it should be.

Act II finds Ana, now a teenager, on a long walk with her mother to the store.  Compared with the remainder of the film, the least happens in here, though its function is certainly to continue to explore Ana’s sexual psychoses.  While her mother is having her hair dyed, Ana walks outside of the shop and has an interaction with a boy kicking a soccer ball around.

The sequence that follows is amazing.  It begins, as does a good bit of the film, with a series of extreme-close-ups.  Eventually though, the two are running side-by-side.  Directors Cattet and Forzani shoot this in shot-reverse-shot, very shaky close-ups, relying heavily on a similar composition, and the emotion displayed in the actors’ eyes.  The scene goes on for longer than expected, and it’s also the sound of their breath and feet that ultimately brings it to a screeching climax…which is where the ball slowly and softly bounds away and Ana is confronted with a motorcycle gang.  The directors shift gears (automobile pun!):

This sequence, as the men eye Ana up, is foreshadow to another critical sequence in a taxi.  Close-ups of sweat, of eyes, of Ana’s dress flapping dangerously up.  Sounds of breath, of boots crunching slowly in sand, of leather creaking as hands grip handlebars.  This builds and builds until it’s broken by the sound of a SLAP and a wide-shot – both release the tension, and show Ana’s mother having returned – and this is another technique by the first-time feature directors: to build the tension through shots and sounds rather than through plot developments, and then release it suddenly and unexpectedly with one sudden sound and shot finally revealing the space and easing our disorientation.

Act III moves on from here.  Ana is now her mother’s age from Act II.  She takes a taxi back to the old house and her “interaction” with the taxi driver, shown through his glances in the rear-view mirror, extremely canted (sometimes at a complete 90 degrees) angles, and many shots of her crossing and uncrossing her legs against his wandering eyes, really build the tension.  Again, sound plays a critical role with the engine revving, his hands tightening around the wheel, her dress and hair flapping in the wind, and her body rocking back and forth against the seat.

SMALL SPOILER in here: The end of the film, which really takes on the elements of the giallo in full, shows Ana wandering around the house and the forest, plagued on all sides by Repulsion-esque figures.  A sequence where she brutally stabs the taxi driver, in full close-up, with the sound played way over normal level, and with more than the requisite amount of gore, is not only a “holy crap” moment, but also the release of tension that we’ve been expecting for the entire picture…in that something happens narratively.

I really loved Amer.  A lot.  The plot, which is basically – girl sees parents have sex, encounters witch.  Girl grows up and continues sexual exploration.  Girl grows up, carries psychological issues with her likely stemming from childhood, goes berserk – is more or less irrelevant.

What is relevant (more than relevant) is the unrelenting build of tension, violent and sexual tension, that these two directors accomplish in their use of close-ups, sound design, angles and colors.  Everything feels so precise to the point that, when older Ana is in the forest near her house and we get a shot of a spider crawling through her hair we know that a) the spider is representative of the man chasing her and b) that spider is as dead as that man chasing her.  The subsequent close-up where she brings her straight razor down through the spider is gruesome and satisfying all at once.

I should also make mention of the soundtrack, which takes on those Argento principles, alternating between his Suspiria-famous Goblin-synth, and the chilling, child and dream-like vocal flourishes that I remember more vividly from his Profondo Rosso.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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