Jan 9, 2012

Amer (2009)
Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Writers: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Starring: Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud and Marie Bos

The Plot: At the beginning of our film, Young Ana arrives with her family to their summer/winter home. As she settles in, she spots her mother berating the house maid through a keyhole. As the daughter snoops around, she overhears her mother speaking about the house maid as if she were a literal withc. When young Ana sneaks off into the house maid’s room, she finds an elderly man who has died, and she tries to pry a special necklace out of this dead man’s hands. Before long, she finds herself being strangled by the hands of the house maid, but luckily Ana manages to escape. When she stumbles upon her parents room, she discovers them in the midst of having sex, which then scars her for life. Not having the mental frame to absorb all of this at once, the young girl grows up with sexual infatuation that grows deeper and darker over time. We catch up with her at two more points in her life, and we see how her sexuality grows and transforms as she becomes an adult.

The Review
It wasn’t until recently, when I started seeing all of these “best films of the year” lists popping up, that I realized just how few “new” films I have seen within the past couple of years. With this in mind, I decided that it was long past due that I finally sat down with one of the critical darlings (and critical punching bags) from the past few years. Amer is a title that I have been aware of for quite some time. Originally featured on the Varied Celluloid forums (before they died and facebook took over all of our social networking) when it was still being promoted, I followed the film right up until the point where it seemed to be catching on with film fans. With so many older films grabbing my attention, it becomes difficult to place newer titles in the front. Amer is one of those that looks to evoke the atmosphere of genre-cinema from years gone by. For those of you who are unaware of this film and its reputation, Amer is a recent French film that is made to directly resemble a extreme flashy and stylistic gialli thriller. If you aren’t familiar with the giallo genre, it is a Italian version of the thriller that was popularized during the seventies. If you want a direct comparison, it is the Italian version of the slasher genre. Taking direct inspiration from the early work of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, this is a blitz of wild and impressive visuals that will astound all audiences. I don’t care if you inevitably hate Amer, even its most ardent enemies must admit that this is a visually compelling piece of cinema. It is the parts that lay between all of the awesome visuals that unfortunately leaves Amer slightly cold.

From the very start, director/writers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani look to evoke the purely visual style that many of the better giallo films of the past had. Although there were few that went to the lengths that Cattet and Forzani’s film does, it is wholly apparent what they were going for with his movie. Every aspect of the film seems to have a custom touch, and this is part of what I loved so much about the Italian way of doing things during the seventies. These were films that didn’t seem entirely interested in developing a realistic portrayal of modern life, but instead they were more about creating a ideal vision of what the filmmakers viewed as the Italian artistic or bourgeois society to be. So, sets were always well decorated even on the most elementary of genre films. The set-decoration side of cinema was treated as if it were the most important aspect on any title, whether it be base-level or high art. Every wall in Amer is beautifully decorated with fantastic wallpaper or insane patterns, every floor is decorated with texturized paint, and the lighting is at all times stunning. There are moments where red lighting fills up the screen on one side, but then a clashing royal blue is illuminated out of a bedside lamp. Does it make any sense at all? No, but when did that ever stop the Italians?

The film delves even further into the bizarre than the Giallo films that it takes its inspiration from. Similar to Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or Giulio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg, Amer casually refers back and forth to a state of dream logic that defies linear storytelling. So, as the movie presses along it becomes harder to decipher what is actually happening in “real time” and what seems to be happening in this dream state that our lead character falls into. This basically leads into one of the biggest flaws of he film. The style over substance debate, which is prevalent in any review for Amer. While I have no questions that the directors have very deep and earnest things that they want to say with their film, there are times where it seems that this dedication to recreating the idealized version of the “giallo” seems to take precedence over telling a engaging narrative. While there were numerous highly stylized Italian films made during the seventies that one could look to for inspiration, there are none that come to my mind that are wholly dedicated to their style insofar as they were willing to sacrifice their pacing in order to create interesting visuals. That is precisely what Amer does, as unfortunate as that may be. There are numerous times throughout the course of the movie where the story may slow down to a snail’s pace in order for the camera to make a slow pan of a neat looking visual. Closeups are used in a nearly fetishistic manner, to the point where the film becomes difficult to understand due to the insane number of times characters are introduced only via their eyes. While these are interesting, and dare I say “cool,” ideas on behalf of the filmmaker, in reality they slow the film down to a highly boring pace where the images start to lose their meaning.

There are moments where Amer is highly affective in every little emotional inkling it wants to demand from you. When it wants to be scary, it actually manages to do so. When the film looks to be sexy, it is downright arousing. It is in the small moments, where the audience is completely enamored by a particular scene, that Amer inevitably finds its greatest strengths. During the introduction, which follows around the youngest version of our lead character, we are lead on a rather frightening cat and mouse chase between this young girl and a hidden assailant. Filled to the brim with dark visuals and dangers that are just out of visual to the viewer, this particular scene is one of the most effective throughout the movie. As far as sensuality goes, the movie is spread more evenly. From scenes of brushing skin on subway trains to light glances at a short skirt, the movie manages to excite its audience without being overly profane. These small moments are truly what makes the movie as effective as it is. In a true case of “the sum not being as good as the parts,” Amer is a film that may very well have a brilliant piece of cinema hiding somewhere just below the surface.

The Conclusion
Amer has all the promise in the world. It features an amazing style that delivers something that is as purely visual as cinema can possibly get, but unfortunately it doesn’t prove to be the most absorbing watch you will come across. I like the film, but it certainly has a great deal of problems. It gets a solid three out of five from me, but I am desperate to see what these filmmakers do next.