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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 03.23.10] France movie review horror drama giallo

Year: 2009
Directors: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 9 out of 10

Amer is the stunningly rendered study of a woman’s descent into psychosis, artfully narrated through three days of her life, first as a sexually-shocked child, then as a bashfully sexy teen, and finally as an adult woman ultimately going mad in the crumbling ruins of her childhood mansion.

It's a visually stunning movie that probes the deep connection between sex and death and how this relationship can become aberrant when exposed to a childhood trauma. This deviance forms the foundation for this often-enigmatic movie, but you may find the central story is deeply disguised by Amer’s frankly unbelievable direction and editing. The delicious cornucopia of shots, the brilliant use of focus, the swift and sure editing -- the whole glory of montage -- magnified and enhanced by a gorgeous soundtrack and audio effects, instantly catapults you into a half-real, half-imaginary world that offers up the emotional and disguises the rational by blurring the line between reality and dream. We follow the action as slaves to the voyeur camera, and we also are voyeurs to the girl’s experiences and resultant troubling inner feelings and fantasies in three specific situations.

Our protagonist is Ana, and she's a sensitive and ignored child in a mansion where grandpa is dead on his bed and grandma is slinking about, performing rituals with handfuls of rock salt, wooden beads, and dead birds, where mom is berating dad about his mother's “filthy” activities and demands she be moved out as her services – taking care of grandpa – are no longer needed, and where Ana is preoccupied with spying and being spied upon, and in finding an old pocket watch, an enigmatic icon which unfortunately grandpa has clutched in his rigor mortis fingers. Yes, everyone creeps around the big house when it gets dark, but the feeing is more psychedelic/surreal than gothic/horror. Ana finally obtains the watch, has a fight over it with grandma -- who’s always seen in full black Italian mourning wear, wafting around like a big black penis – and while Ana is running away she opens a door and stumbles in on her mom and dad, happily screwing away while mom apparently is having an orgasm. Yeah, a bit of a shock. Cue a stupendously psychedelic mind trip as writer/directors Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet take us inside Ana’s psyche to reveal the resulting mental destruction. What we see is Ana’s dream sequence, a symbol-laden piece shot in various colours in which she awakes in her bed, takes the watch and then notices the floor is covered with water, which she cleans up with her bedsheet. It’s still dripping, and she looks up at the non-existent ceiling to see drops falling from above. She climbs on the bed for a closer look and sees two very indistinct bodies making love in what could be a waterbed. As they move water drops down. She reaches out to grab the drops and her hand is covered with salt. The water soon makes the mess look like semen. Frightened, or shocked, she drops the watch. Now, here’s an interesting thing: every time she opens the watch we hear a sort of darth vaderish breathing, and a wind from nowhere always blows through the room, shaking whatever curtains are around. And one other thing: this movie is obsessed with eyes – staring eyes, eyes through keyholes, eyes through mourning lace, lots and lots of eye close-ups, and most importantly, eye staring matches between Ana and her mother over who will control the situation. This time when Ana looks at the watch, she sees her grandpa’s eye staring at her. Screaming, she tries to run away but the watch chain gets stuck and grandma, under the bed, has a hold of her legs. She manages to get free and run just as a three-finger claw hand slaps on the floor. She tries to return the watch, but after entering the death room and hearing breathing she asks questionly, “mummy?” but it’s grandpa who’s suddenly alive and who stands up, reaching out as he approaches. Cut to Ana passed out on the floor outside her parent’s room. Back to reality. Mom grabs the watch and pockets it. Then Mom and Ana have a staring contest while the watch does its heavy breathing thing in the pocket. All very heavy.

Well, what to make of that? Certainly we have a deeply dysfunctional family under stress and an episode of childhood trauma that expresses the shock of seeing the lovers immediately after she’s broken her grandfather’s finger (penis) with a crucifix in order to take the watch – a symbol for his time, his essence? Or an innocent desire for something forbidden? Forzani and Cattet express this as a sort of dream begging for Freudian analysis. Their solution certainly is surreal, sticking to Freud’s assertion that nothing in the dream narrative can make sense, only the free associations you draw from the separate images. This isn’t too tough. Water is equated with sex and sex is equated with control. And control goes to those with the weapon. Be it a watch, or what it symbolizes – the power of parent over child. Already a De Sadian relationship between pleasure and pain is beginning to form.

Cassandra Forêt plays the child Ana, and while she’s precociously cute she’s not the best of little actresses, often woodenly moving through her complex action scenes, thus revealing the direction she’s trying to remember. On the other hand, with all the creeping and peeking she has to do perhaps unnaturally wandering around and not looking like a little automaton may be a tough piece of acting to accomplish.

Forêt has nothing on Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud, who plays to Lolita perfection the adolescent Ana. Her segment begins with a scene in which a female body is literally being pulled and pushed out of shape while a pair of female hands caress a body. Is it Ana’s body? Apparently. There’s a short ripping sound and little yip. Was something being cut? Torn? This dream-like montage ends with a side shot of a hand on a breast, and all this flesh finally morphs into a close-up of a mid-teen Ana, looking beautiful, bored and full of unexplored sexuality. In this day in the life Ana spends a hormone-enhanced trip with her mother to town and has that first inkling of her power over men in a fantastic high noon sequence where she self-consciously walks in front of a line of guys on motorcycles before meeting her mother who, not surprisingly, gives her a good brazen hussy slap across the face before they hike back to the chateau. Guibbard is amazingly sexy in that endearing adolescent way of revealing youthful sexual splendor but hiding it all behind a veil of innocence.

She’s made for sex: slightly buck teeth, rich, full lips and giant eyes. Her pretty face is framed with hard black hair with a strand that’s always caught in the corner of her mouth. Her smooth legs shimmer under a blue jumper that sits high thigh when the wind isn’t blowing, but today the breeze is friendly and we’re treated to an endless montage of voyeuristic close-ups of perky teenage boobs, upskirts front and back revealing white cotton panties, and, of course, the rolling beads of sweat that gracefully decorate both Ana and her almost homo-erotically studly audience as she gives a lesson in excited self-consciousness and the men jostle to see who can jut the most.

This scene is preceded by a truly magnificent montage where Ana has a sexual fantasy while she and a younger boy chase a ball down the town’s streets. Their rhythm is primal and as she runs the slapping of her shoes and heavy breathing is overwhelmingly sexual. Stupendous scene and cutting.

Insofar as the story is concerned, it appears the family has changed. Dad is no longer around and mom has to walk to the village. There’s no explanations. Of the three segments, I think I like this one the best – and not just for the overt sexuality. Ana is now developing into a woman, but she still fights it out with her mother for power. Physically she’s a woman, but mentally she’s still a child, inexperienced with life and still influenced by a repressive mother now apparently uninterested in men.

Amer ends with the now adult Ana, who returns to the now-dilapidated mansion. This Ana is played by Marie Bos, who treats us to a truly horrific madwoman and the movie’s only gorror scene. This segment begins with a clever montage of naked, out-of-focus body parts jostling up against each other. Sex? No, it turns out Ana is on a crowded bus with her suitcase, and for her this casual touching builds to a point of high anxiety before the bus stops and Ana can get off to take a taxi, driven by a Vaughan-like character who likes to wear racing gloves and smoke a lot while checking out Ana’s body in the rear-view mirror. Great ride. Unsurprisingly, Ana is already slightly unhinged, again self-conscious of her body and at one point imagining the wind from the open window peeling off all her clothes for the sullen stranger driving her.

Arriving at the derelict house – a great visual treat in itself – Ana goes to her old room, grabs her trunk of dolls, tosses all her old clothes on top, and drags it away for the garbage men. No nostalgic trips here. Then, before they can leave, she returns with a second box, this containing a fly-covered carcass she had found on the patio. Nice foreshadowing. She returns to the house, finds a knife, and then runs up the stairs, oddly goes outside to see if a car is coming up the road, then goes back into her room to caress the exposed plaster and dig at it with the knife. What could be hidden in the walls? Suddenly we hear an odd sound… the sound a comb makes when you run your nail down the teeth. Drawn by the sound Ana goes to the bathroom down the hall. The room is illuminated with candles. Hmmm. Who could have arranged this? She undresses and gets into a giant tub and turns the handles, but no water emerges. She notices a mirror with a comb on it. She picks up the comb and lies back in the tub. She makes it sound with her finger. Bbbrrrriptttt. Then with her tongue and teeth. All very sensual. Then, with the camera only on her face, Ana lowers her hands and we hear the comb sound over and over as she slowly moves her head and groans in pleasure. Cut to a shot of her naked legs. Water begins to accumulate around them as the comb continues. Finally the water covers her and she begins to wash herself, only to be plunged underwater by hands in long black gloves. Watch for how those gloves re-appear later.

From here until the surprise ending we’re caught up in a storyline of hunter/hunted, as the brutally sexual taxi driver reappears and Ana readies herself with a straight razor. It’s interesting to note the sexuality Forzani and Cattet insert into these scenes, as Ana is obviously excited by the dangers of the chase/hunt through the estate’s grounds at night. It all builds to a creep climax, as we’re either treated or tortured by a truly eye-averting death scene and Ana’s subsequent fate.

It’s all very dreamlike at the end, and certainly enigmatic as to how the final action plays out. I do have a theory for the ending, however, and it involves the comb in the bath scene. Rather than masturbating herself as a way of creating the imaginary water, which we’ve already associated with sex, I believe Ana is using the comb on her wrist, and that the water is in reality her blood, and the final sequence, in which she expresses her sadistic urges and finally confronts her inner demons, is her final fantasy before she bleeds to death. Hey, it’s plausible given the fantasies we’ve seen before, and it all begins – her madness – when she’s digging at the wall of her room. The final place of memory?

The story itself receives its jolt of psycho power as an expression of the Electra complex, and the character Ana is a truly remarkable imaginative creation. What elevates and expands on her psychopathology is Forzani and Cattet’s inspired artistic rendering of the emotional story through visual techniques of a highly inventive and mesmerizing quality. The montages are mini works of art, superbly shot and impeccably edited. It’s hard to explain just how good and how perfectly stylized these sequences are. You will also be amused by the film’s aspect ratio, which is the widest wide-angle I’ve seen in some time. That long bar of light is perfect for this movie, however, especially on all the eyeball shots and superb use of depth-of-field in the more than numerous close-ups.

Is Amer an homage, a rip-off, a neo updating or in any way hat-tipping to the giallo pix of the 1970s? Could be. Maybe. Perhaps not. Does it matter? Not to me. In many ways this is more a psycho-thriller than a horror flick, and personally I would have given Amer higher marks without the graphic knife elements, which to a certain degree intrude on the dream-states with its almost too-crude emphasis on the physical, given my thesis that this is a death-dream of symbolic retribution. OK, it could be a nightmare.

Amer is, yeah, you guessed it, one heck of a great movie. Outside of the leg-crossing final scene (sorry, it’s all castration symbolism for us men) you’re shown a rare visual interpretation of a disturbed inner life, a blend of sight and emotion expressing a psychological dramatic narrative, made even more expressive by the superb sound track and truly evocative sound effects. See it if you can… it’s a visually thrilling triptych of id, ego and superego, albeit of the very deranged variety.

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agentorange (11 years ago) Reply

Amazing insights into a truly brilliant and unique film, Rick.

Amer brings all that psychological subtext that was awkwrdly handled in 70s Giallo flicks to the surface. In doing so, the film manages to create this weird sub subtext that is challenging (though sometimes overwhelmingly post-modern).

I'll admit that the film started to lose me in the final act. It's such an agressiive film however, that maybe my brain could only handle so much.

Planning on watching it again.


Zombiblogia (11 years ago) Reply

Hi there!
I got the chance to see Amer next Saturday on Madrid. I was very interested on it, and since I've read your review I'm even more.


Kyle Rankin (11 years ago) Reply

Saw this in Trieste, Italy -- it's an awesome experience & unlike anything I'd ever seen!


Kurt (11 years ago) Reply

One of my most anticipated films of 2010. This cannot get here soon enough!!


Deusmaximus (11 years ago) Reply

You really all liked it that much? I mean I have seen it also, although I appreciate the sentiment of the movie and the imaginary I do have some points

How is it that these movies get such great reviews? I mean to compare it with the giallo is really an insult to the genre. It has nothing of it, only at the end.

For the most part it is a neo-vague movie at best. The sexual imaginary and the danger that lurks is an interesting angle. Also the coming of age and the interpretation of the girl/teenager/woman is interesting, but please watch Argento for proper giallo movies that have made the genre.

Amer is really something to see and takes no prisoners. For me it was a let-down because I was looking for giallo not a mix between Cache and Lolita :-)

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