Review: Amer (2009)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #661

Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 23, 2009 (Fantastisk Film Festival Lund)
Sub-Genre: Giallo/Arthouse
Country of Origin: France, Belgium
Running Time: 90 minutes
Directors: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Producers: François Cognard, Eve Commenge
Screenplay: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Special Effects: Lionel Lê
Visual Effects: Daniel Bruylandt
Cinematography: Manuel Dacosse
Score: Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, Ennio Morricone
Editing: Bernard Beets
Studios: Anonymes Films, Tobina Film
Distributors: Zootrope Films, Wild Side Vidéo
Stars: Cassandra Forêt, Bianca Maria D’Amato, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud, Marie Bos, Delphine Brual, Harry Cleven, Bernard Marbaix, Jean-Michel Vovk

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Bruno Nicolai “La coda dello scorpione – Sequence 1”
[2] Stelvio Cipriani “What Have They Done To Our Daughters?”
[3] Ennio Morricone “Un Uomo Si E’ Dimesso”
[4] Bruno Nicolai “La coda dello scorpione – Sequence 1 (Reprise)”

The media of film can boast numerous other benefits aside from simply entertaining its audience. Those looking solely for escapism are generously provided for, particularly by Hollywood, whereas those willing to delve a little deeper beneath the veil have art-house cinema to cater for their exclusive needs. Here the impetus is on shying away from convention and such works are made primarily for aesthetic reasons, using symbolic content to tantalize our neurons as opposed to spelling anything out. The market they target is decidedly niche, and commercial profit, by no means guaranteed. Famous playwright Oscar Wilde was once quoted as saying “you know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages”, and if those words resonate, then chances are, you possess the correct mental tool set to venture forth into works such as the one I’m about to explore.

French married couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were already turning heads in their homeland long before Amer came about after a string of short films that had been very well received. The pair met in Brussels, Belgium in 1997 and have since gone on to make the city their home but couldn’t raise the necessary funds to get the project off the ground so secured the services of French producer François Cognard for any additional funding required. Taking their cues from the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, their intention was to craft a postmodern giallo capable of taking this sleeping giant into a fresh direction and distill these elements into a dreamlike scrapbook of striking imagery and hidden meaning. In short, this is not a film for everyone. Indeed many will arrive at the end credits with an overwhelming feeling of indifference and bemusement. However those willing to lend themselves to its off-kilter charms stand to play surrogate to a visual tour de force like few others in existence.

Translating to “bitter” in its native tongue, Amer isn’t so much a film you watch as uncomfortably experience, with only the flimsiest of narrative to decipher but more than enough to engage the grey matter and provoke unrest in its viewer. As already stated, this is not the most accessible film and is likely to test the patience of the casual horror fan to levels way beyond excruciating. Metaphor is key here as it uses nightmarish visuals to chaperone us through three distinctive segments, touching on such topics as fear of death, sexual awakening and isolation as it casts a spell on our senses that is never less than utterly captivating. Set almost entirely in a vast mansion overlooking the Mediterranean sea, it charts the journey of main protagonist Ana through childhood, to young womanhood, and eventually adulthood. Each part boasts its own unique style and the sum of these is undeniably brilliant.

We are instantly tossed into a macabre and inhospitable world as viewed through the wide-eyes of a prepubescent girl (Cassandra Forêt). Ana’s parents have forbidden her from entering one particular room in the house, and needless to say, this is all the encouragement she needs to do the precise opposite. Here she is introduced to her very first stone cold corpse and cannot help but develop a morbid fascination with something she’s simply not equipped to process.

However, while she somehow manages to escape this chamber undetected, this dead spirit digs its nails into her vivid imagination, leaving behind a stubborn stain that is privy to her every thought and fear. The unblinking eye peeping through her keyhole appears to be observing her every trepidatious move and there ain’t a knife in the drawer sharp enough to cut through the thick atmosphere of foreboding that Cattet and Forzani fashion. I shit you not, the opening act is asphyxiating in the extreme and you’ll likely spend the whole time attempting to draw a solitary breath.

To sustain this level of tension for a full 90 minutes would take a Herculean effort, thus we shift forward in time and rejoin a now adolescent Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud) as she strolls into town with her mother (Bianca Maria d’Amato). The mood changes significantly here from one of burgeoning dread to an intense eroticism that recalls the fetishistic softcore of Tinto Brass as she encounters a group of lustful bikers and we become passengers in her course towards sexual enlightenment.

Sporting her very best Lolita pout, while chewing on a strand of hair seductively, Ana’s actions seem one part expression of boredom, and the other, a sensual yearning spawning from an unspoken psychosexual rivalry between Ana and her obscenely competitive mother. This hazy midsection could so easily have proved the weakest link, but instead, plays out just as much on a knife’s edge, before returning us to a state of hyper-alert for by far the most surreal of the three evolutionary stages.

No longer the gangly teen, a fully grown Ana (Marie Bos) braves a solo return to her now-abandoned former residence and gets the increasing feeling that she is not as alone as it first appears. Things now take a turn for the more outré as Cattet and Forzani go straight for the jugular, thrusting us headlong down the rabbit hole into a kaleidoscopic world of jarring excess where our eyes consistently betray us.

This culminates in a snazzily cut and immensely spiteful sequence depicting a switch blade desecrating the soft flesh of a victim’s throat before hovering tantalizingly mere millimetres away from their wide-open eye. Little context is provided to assist us with making a solitary lick of sense of the spiraling madness and this serves only to accelerate the distress and discombobulation we are feeling. Those searching for definition will be required to decode their own here and that is job done where Amer is concerned.

There are a number of reasons why Cattet and Forzani’s film is nigh-on impossible to shake after viewing it, none least their use of retina-searing primary colors and Manuel Dacosse’s sumptuous cinematography. Dialogue plays second fiddle here to what the camera decides to communicate and every last frame has its own significance depending on how we choose to perceive it. Meanwhile, the use of sound has seldom been more pivotal as it is here.

The eclectic score is lifted directly from seventies Italian cinema, incorporating the chords of Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani and Ennio Morricone to masterful effect. But the greatest revelation comes from Daniel Bruyland and Luc Thomas, whose suffocating sound design ratchets up the intensity to unbearable levels. From implacable footsteps, to dripping faucets, creaking doors and banging shutters, audio is every bit as critical to our escalating unease as the outlandish visuals.

Interestingly, while Amer pays affectionate homage to the giallo, it’s not quite that easy to pigeonhole and this is to the tremendous credit of Cattet, Forzani and every last person involved. Like Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, the abstract pictures it paints are just begging for our minds to run away with them. But where Glazer’s film blew hot and cold, here there is precious little respite for our fast-fraying nerves and even less downtime for our over-active imaginations. Put simply, this wonderful film flirts frequently with perfection, and while a whisper away from achieving such, continues to burrow deep into the subconscious long after it bids its audience au revoir.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: There’s actually a bare minimum of brutality on exhibit, but what there is hits us smack bang in the solar plexus and keeps on twisting. Those of a weaker disposition should be prepared to spend certain moments peeking from between their fingers as Amer states a powerful case for quality over quantity.

For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Magnetic would be the key word here, particularly around the halfway point, when Ana’s heaving body is transformed into a veritable landscape of pent-up sexual desire. Wearing a flirty purple dress which dances provocatively around her upper thighs, offering the briefest glimpse of her bunched panties, the lens adopts extreme close-ups to caress every last contour and bead of sweat. The result is fiercely erotic, whilst never once surrendering a sense of innocence.

Read The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears Appraisal

Read Tulpa Appraisal

Read Suspiria Appraisal

Read Under The Skin Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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    1. This one was something else. It was a whisker from earning a perfect ten and I reckon it may achieve it on repeat viewing. Beautiful, hypnotic, erotic, terrifying – Amer is the closest we have to a modern-day Suspiria in my opinion.

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