"A totally idiosyncratic creation, something that deserves to be relished for its bravado refusal to play by the rules." | Photo: UniFrance/Tobina Film

It's a shame that Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani's deliriously stylised Amer has gone straight to DVD in this country, after only a brief visit to independent cinemas, as it truly is a sensory overload that deserves to be seen and heard in as large and loud a cinema as possible. It's the sort of experience that has divided audiences at the many festivals it has taken by storm, but there's no doubting the care and craft with which it has been assembled. Taking the arthouse sensibilities that distinguished the giallo genre from straightforward slashers to an absolute extreme, the film eschews expositional dialogue and traditional narrative to focus on its lead character's fears and desires at three important stages of her life.

As a child, Ana's imagination runs riot with her grandfather's fresh corpse lying in the room below. A mysterious grief-struck old woman lives next to her bedroom, the two visible to each through the keyhole in an ongoing conflict of curiosity and paranoia. As she creeps around her imposing mansion, Ana sees, hears and feels things she can't comprehend, spinning her febrile mind into a kaleidoscopic nightmare.

Next, we find Ana as a blossoming teen, a summer's day with her mother leading her into contact with a variety of lusty boys and men. The stubborn wish to extricate herself from her mother's controlling clutches begins a sexual awakening that could lead her into trouble. Finally, we find Ana returning to her crumbling childhood home as an elegant lady, the frustration and desire she feels on the sweltering taxi journey there spilling over into a night where she and the driver find themselves stalked by a switchblade-wielding shadow.

'Giallo' ('yellow') originally referred to the cheap paperbacks that inspired the genre made famous by Argento and Fulci, and lurid colour is one of the things that ties Amer to its inspirations and that also makes it stand out so brilliantly. Early scenes cast Ana's mansion in rich, deep shades of brown, but as her phantasmagoria takes over, the screen is awash with luminous reds and purples, blues and greens. Simple sound effects such as water dripping become heightened cacophonies, and deep sonic rumbles ebb and flow as the imagery grows ever more intense. The frenetic cutting and exaggerated camerawork - heavily reliant on zooms and close-ups, especially of eyeballs - combine with these elements to build breathless suspense, rising to a fever pitch that is only enhanced by the lack of explanation.

And then the film completely changes tack, and for many viewers it will never recover. The second segment abandons the delirious baroque style of the first to resemble a sensual Sixties drama. For those who aren't prepared to accept the stylistic volte-face, this will feel like an overlong advert in the middle of a classic horror film. But if you're willing to be receptive, this sequence reveals much about Ana's character and the anxieties every teenage girl must face. It looks and sounds absolutely lush, forces you to take a step back from what has gone before and allows you to make mental links with what you have just seen to develop the central character for yourself.

It also leaves you totally unprepared for what lies ahead, the final piece bringing the preoccupations of the previous two together. Blazing heat and bright sunlight, evoked through sizzling leather seats and the gleaming metal body of a car, give way to terrifically tense twilight scenes, the brilliantly evoked dusk concealing figures that may or may not be figments of murderous fantasy. Throughout all this, the use of classic soundtrack pieces by the likes of Ennio Morricone amounts to more than Tarantino-esque know-it-all showboating - the music really fits with the film's shifting moods, swinging from menacing to sassy and back again effortlessly.

Needless to say, lovers of stories with clear resolutions will probably be disgusted by the directors' complete disregard for all conventions other than those lifted from their favourite genre movies. Even lovers of the aforementioned Giallo form may be frustrated by the film's ambiguous nature and shameless cherry-picking from their revered classics. But the combination of all of these things ultimately makes Amer a totally idiosyncratic creation, something that deserves to be relished for its bravado refusal to play by the rules.

Accusations that it is merely three short films strung together are understandable, as each section works effortlessly on its own, but their juxtaposition really draws the audience into Ana's sensations; by the end you may not feel you know anything about her but you will definitely know something about how she feels. It all adds up to give you a real sense of the appreciation these directors have for their inspirations, and the love that went into their own ultimately unique creation.

It's the sort of film that can be watched repeatedly and intently to piece together the puzzle it represents, or just to let it wash over you as an audiovisual spectacle. It should even encourage its supporters to seek out the films it pays tribute to, either for a first time or to deepen the respect due to them. An exceptional debut.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2011
Share this with others on...
Amer packshot
A surreal look at three stages of a woman's life, drawing heavily on the giallo tradition.
Amazon link

Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Starring: Marie Bos, Delphine Brual, Harry Cleven, Bianca Maria D'Amato, Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud, Bernard Marbaix, Jean-Michel Vovk

Year: 2009

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: France, Belgium

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Let The Corpses Tan