The first thing you need to know about Amer (translation: bitter), the stylish yet frustrating homage to Italian Giallo horror films of the '70s from Belgian directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani: the human eye gets a lot of close-ups within its 90 minutes. Pleading eyes. Surprised eyes. Killer eyes. Languidly gazing eyes. A searing close-up on a pair of eyes can be an intense tonic. Amer's filmmakers trot them out with such dull regularity that they become a visual shorthand for the film's "style over substance" approach.
The mostly dialogue-free Amer is divided into three parts, each dealing with a different stage in the life of its female protagonist, Ana. The first, most successful sequence has the lead character as a young girl living in a cavernous, creepy mansion. Her mother is frustrated with the girl, who is fascinated by the corpse of her grandfather lying in state. She pries a watch from the dead man's hands, then is traumatized when she spies on her mother having sex. A shadowy figure follows her every move as the film delves into a hypnotically saturated, dreamlike state. This sequence is not so much redolent of Giallo films; its low-key chill calls to mind more recent fright films from Asia. The tight editing and strange, dreamlike lighting goes into a more experimental, arty realm -- less Dario Argento, more Kenneth Anger. The segment is interesting, but tends to wear out its welcome as it ambles along.
The second segment finds Ana in her early teens, her blossoming sexuality symbolized by an ant crawling on her body (Saul Bass had a similar scene in his "ants gone amok" opus Phase IV, strangely enough). She and her still attractive mother are seen walking along a sunlit roadside, accompanied by a chichi bit of '70s soundtrack music. The mother has an appointment at the hairdressers. While the girl waits, she is leered at by a shopkeeper and a boy acquaintance with a soccer ball. She and the boy engage in a race that is seen in tight closeup, a tense moment in which the girl might either be playing along or desperately fleeing a tormentor. The segment concludes with the girl coming across a predatory group of bikers. This was a frustrating sequence to watch. The liberal use of close-ups in this part adds an effectively claustrophobic feel, but the blossoming sexuality theme doesn't get examined much beyond surface gloss.
Amer's third and final part is the most plainly Gallio-influenced, with the now-adult Ana going back to the mansion she grew up in. Traveling to her hometown, the woman engages in a bit of sexual tension with her taxi driver. She enters the abandoned and thus even creepier home, exploring the stairways and rooms. The shadowy figure re-enters the scene as the woman is pursued by a menacing intruder who is seen only in bits and pieces. A stylized interplay emerges to the sound of creaking leather - and those damned close-ups of eyes. This segment finally delivers on the promise of heightened atmosphere, kink and gore that would come from a Gallio tribute. It winds up being the most typical and disappointing segment of the three, however.
Although Amer is being sold as "an eroticized homage to 1970s Italian giallo horror films", the film itself is a more abstract and daring (at least in concept) exploration of sexuality at various points in a woman's life. On that level, the film holds lots of potential as a unique and memorable experience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' techniques tend towards the hackneyed and overused. Tight editing, pore-exposing close-ups and saturated color filters are employed and re-employed to the point that the film becomes a superficial bore (the fact that the lead character never develops beyond that of a lovely cypher adds to the tedium). Occasionally the film references earlier, better films, gallio or not. At best it's evocative of a sexy, super-saturated '70s aesthetic, especially whenever throbbing vintage Italian soundtracks by the likes of Stelvio Cipriani are used. For the most part, though, the avant-garde sensibility that Amer aspires for winds up settling for mere pastiche.
Olive Films' DVD of Amer presents the film in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is satisfyingly deep, capturing both crumbling mansion walls and sun-baked Italian hillsides in a way that is both contemporary and reminiscent of '70s film techniques.
The DVD's French language soundtrack is included in 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby stereo options; it is decently mixed if a bit too keyed up with ambient sound effects (probably by the filmmakers' choice).
In addition to a teaser trailer and two theatrical trailers, the DVD contains an intriguing extra: the five short films made by Cattet and Forzani leading up to Amer. Accompanied by informative notes by the filmmakers, the shorts are cleverly made (considering their tiny budgets and crew) and at times visually stunning. In detail:
- Catharsis (2001; 3:01) - A man enters a room, facing an unknown assailant. Tightly edited still photos drive this energetic, visually daring piece.
- Chambre Jaune (2002; 7:37) - An apartment dweller faces a hostile intruder and a life-altering choice; the gallio influence is in full force with this concise thriller.
- La Fin de Notre Amour (2003; 9:54) - Wild imagery and stunning color photography highlight this abstract, still-based short of a man who mutilates himself and notes his findings in a book.
- L'Etrange Portrait de le Dame en Jaune (2004; 5:34) - A woman showers while a leather-clad man ominously leers, waiting for attack. Themes further explored in Amer are seen in this rote effort.
- Santos Palace (2006; 14:58) - A woman's sexual oppression is explored yet again in this episode set in a dingy café, the only short made with a professional grade budget and crew. Fascinating if overlong.
Amer might hold some interest to Giallo fans who wouldn't mind a second-hand approximation of a film genre known for audacity and visceral thrills. The film has gotten its share of acclaim, but this critic found it repetitive and shallow. Regrettably, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's filmmaking technique is about as edgy as a designer jeans commercial from circa 1992. Rent it.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.