Amer (2009)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, February 2011

Synopsis: Young Ana moves into a villa with her parents, where her grandfather, recently deceased, is laid out downstairs. Ana is as terrified of the elderly pagan housemaid Graziella (dubbed a ‘witch’ by Ana’s mother) as she is curious about the corpse – but one night, after both stealing a fobwatch from her grandfather’s dead hands (only to see his eyes open), and catching her parents in flagrante delicto, Ana has a feverish nightmare of water, witchcraft and wings.

Ana is a sexually ripe adolescent, attracting the male gaze to her nubile flesh in a way that her now greying mother no longer can. While her mother is having her hair coloured in the local town, Ana strays to the town’s limits, drawn by the sound of  engines. There she finds a row of motorbikers, all oozing testosterone – but as she approaches them, her mother appears and slaps her. The two walk back to the villa.

The adult Ana arrives by train, and takes a taxi to the now dilapidated villa, fantasising on the way about being raped by her driver. She leaves her headscarf behind in the cab, and steals the driver’s comb. Later, while masturbating in the bath, Ana is nearly drowned by a gloved figure, and flees for safety. That night, she awakens in bed, her legs covered in blood, and hears someone moving about. She sneaks into the garden, but is grabbed from behind by the gloved figure and menaced with a razor. The cab driver, there to return her headscarf, is bloodily murdered. Ana wakes up by his body, now herself wearing the black gloves. She is chased by the dark figure, before confronting and stabbing him.

Ana’s naked body, with wrists slashed, lies on a mortuary table. As hands arrange her corpse, Ana’s eyes open.

Review: Near the beginning of Amer, as a mother (Bianca Maria D’Amato) adjusts her belt buckle, her young daughter Ana (Cassandra Forêt) is shown inserting her fingers into her ears to block out the scratching of metal on metal. Accordingly the noise is amplified to unnaturally loud levels on the film’s soundtrack, although whether this represents what Ana can hear through her sound-suppressant fingers, or rather what she imagines she would hear, remains unclear. For in Amer, the subjective experiences of impressionable, hypersensitive Ana are presented as a stylised blur of blinkered perceptions, readily supplemented and exaggerated by her fantasies and fears.

Following their two award-winning short films – La fin de notre amour (2004) and Santos Palace (2006) – Belgian writing/directing team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s feature debut is a psychodrama in triptych, with its three acts unfolding in and around an ancestral villa, and each representing a formative episode in the life (and death) story of Ana (her very three-lettered, palindromic name reflecting the film’s tripartite, cyclical structure). In the first part, after witnessing both her grandfather’s corpse being furtively attended by the pagan ‘witch’ Graziella (Delphine Brual), and her parents having sex (transformed, in Ana’s mind, to a fractured loop of psychedelic colours), the young girl succumbs to a horrifying, Svankmajer-inflected wet dream in which she must struggle to escape the clutches of Graziella and grandfather alike in her shadowy bedroom. In the second part, as adolescent Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud) grows aware of the power and allure of her burgeoning sexuality, her mother, whether out of protectiveness or jealousy, cuts her down in her prime. In the third part, Ana (Marie Bos), now a sexually repressed adult, returns to the villa, where she plays out in her disturbed psyche – and possibly also in reality – all her desires and fears surrounding men.

Amer is a surrealist homage to the thematic preoccupations, visual stylings and musical cues of Italian genre cinema. Here all the primal scenes, sinister bewitchings, gloved killers and colour codings are borrowed from gialli, while the eclectic score has been appropriated directly from various Seventies poliziotteschi, and the beautifully styled erotica of the middle section recalls the fetishistic softcore of Tinto Brass. Yet the dynamic manner in which Cattet and Forzani have integrated their sources is exemplified by their selection of the musical theme from Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) – which features a murderous mortorcyclist – to underscore the teenaged Ana’s yearnings for a transgressive ‘ride’ with some macho bikers as well as her mother’s refusal to let her daughter go. For Amer is no mere pastiche, but a mosaic of hints and suggestions for a narrative which remains elliptical and ambiguous to the end. It is a story with almost no accompanying dialogue to pin its meaning down, and a murder mystery without a detective to solve it – and its coda, far from providing an explanation, serves up a series of irrational echoes (hands on flesh, dripping water, opening eyes, the living dead) that will send viewers flailing back through all that has preceded in search of a way to make more than partial sense of the film’s impenetrable sequence of spiraling signifiers. Despite the film’s recurrent focus on characters’ eyes in close-up (a motif borrowed from Mario Bava), we cannot trust what our own eyes see here, and every time Ana enters the villa’s iron gate, we feel, in this hallucinatory realm of love and death, that we are being led up the garden path in more ways than one.

This indeterminacy makes Amer chillingly uncanny, and very much worthy of multiple revisits. It helps that the film is such a richly sensual treat, where an immersive sound design is perfectly complemented by an array of impressionistic, highly tactile images, all reflecting Ana’s nervously libidinous response to the world around her. The result is an uneasy mood piece that will leave audiences both enthralled and not a little puzzled – and for all its engagement with a kind of Italian cinema long past and for some viewers long since forgotten, its exquisite crafting makes it stand out as a true original in today’s horror market.

Anton Bitel