Amer (2010): Bizarre Horror Film

By Jeff Farr

Olive Films

Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s “Amer” represents one of the year’s stronger,  more idiosyncratic art-film debuts. A marriage of giallo devices and an abstract approach to narrative, this film will be a hoot for knowing audiences—and torture for anyone looking for normal horror movie.
But is it scary? At first, not so much. But by the end of “Amer” do not be surprised to find yourself involuntarily covering your eyes. Things build toward a grisly and most discomfiting final act.
Speaking of eyes, Cattet and Forzani make much use, from the start of the film, of intense close-ups of all the characters’ eyes. This is the directors’ way of announcing that this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill horror flick: “Amer” has an intellectual agenda dealing with the nature of perception, as well as gender and sexual issues.
The directors’ main concern is the eyes of their female protagonist, Ana, who is played by three actors as the character transitions from a young girl into her teenage years into young womanhood over the course of the film’s three acts. We never know for sure how much of what she perceives is real.
Something is certainly amiss in Ana’s childhood home, a remote mansion overlooking the sea. Her parents argue intensely over what to do about their household help, Graziella, a veiled, witchlike woman who performs strange rituals around the house—involving props like dead birds and broken bits of glass. She also has a intensely disturbing way of staring at Ana through her bedroom keyhole.
Graziella remains attached to Ana’s deceased grandfather, whose body is still embalmed elsewhere in the house. When the girl sneaks into her grandfather’s room and dares to pry his timepiece away from his folded fingers, things either go haywire or her sense of reality starts to melt.
This is an audacious opening sequence. Carefully, almost systematically employing the cinematic vocabulary of giallo—including the aforementioned close-ups, rapid cuts, and many histrionic zooms—Cattet and Forzani work quickly toward a full-on cinematic freak out, coinciding with Ana’s discovery of her parents making love, at just about 20 minutes in.
Where are we going to go from here? Some viewers may already be exhausted at the half-hour mark.
The film suddenly jumps ahead to the teenage Ana killing an ant that crawls out of her bellybutton. This is one of the film’s most fully realized and memorable sequences, although a short one.
The second act of “Amer” focuses on Ana’s budding sexuality as a teenager and her contentious relationship with her disagreeable mother. Cattet and Forzani drop for the most part the horror tricks for this middle portion, adopting instead a quite different, Antonioni-esque style.
When Ana is on the verge of running off with a spectacular gang of motorcycle boys, a sequence straight out of Brando’s cult film “The Wild One” (1953), her mother catches up with her and gives her a smacking. But in the film’s final act, the mother has disappeared, as Ana, now grown up, returns to the scene of the crime: her childhood home, now abandoned and in serious disrepair. The house is of course not really empty. Some sort of evil still lingers there—at least in Ana’s mind—and she must face her demons again.
There is no solid narrative to unify the various elements. There’s just the bare bones of a story here, and nothing much ever gets clarified—especially the question of what is real and what is simply Ana’s delusion.
“Amer” is held together instead by thematic and visual concerns related to an age-old horror film trajectory: the severe punishment of women for expressing too much sexuality. Is there any way to turn the trajectory on itself?
This film is at once a loving celebration of the mechanisms that make the giallo work well and a damning critique of what happens to women in this misogynist giallo universe. The directors accomplish the task without ever letting it become a joyless exercise. In fact, there is much subtle humor to be found throughout the film.
Cattet and Forzani’s film is more impressive on the technical front. It starts with the versatile cinematography of Manu Dacosse, much of it in reference to the giallo, never missing the mark. Particularly noteworthy is the editing, by Bernard Beets, and the sound design, by Dan Bruylandt. Much of the film’s energy comes from how well Beets’s flamboyant cutting works in tandem with Bruylandt’s sound design, which expertly, through repetition and volume, finds sheer horror in even everyday noises.
The soundtrack, which borrows heavily from original giallo soundtracks by Silvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicola, is also a lot of fun.
Bianca Maria D’Amato
Marie Bos
Charlottle Eugene Guibbaud
Cassandra Foret
Harry Cleven
An Olive Films release.
Written and Directed by Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani.
Director of Photography, Manu Dacosse.
Editor, Bernard Beets.
Sound Editor, Dan Bruylandt.
Running time: 90 minutes.