This year’s mystery film at Celluloid Screams, 2009 thriller Amer, might be a Franco-Belgian co-production but it’s a decidedly Italian affair. Heavily indebted to the giallo of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have imbued their film with an intoxicating union of overwhelming audio and images so lurid and erotic that they’ll make your head spin. It’s less a film and more of an experience, almost entirely eschewing dialogue and story for sensory thrills.
The plot, of what little there is, follows Ana through three key incidents in her life: as a child, a teenager and a young woman. The first part is a relentless love letter to Argento’s Suspiria, stuffed with lurid neon and leather-gloved malevolence in a gaudy mansion. By far the most effective chapter, what starts as an abstract game of hide and seek between nine-year-old Ana and the mutilated family maid grows more and more surreal, laying down the film’s peculiar aesthetic blueprint of extreme close-ups and inhumanly crisp and grotesque sound effects.
Subsequent episodes as a lusty teenager drawn to a group of leather-clad bikes (all of whom wouldn’t look out of place in Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising) and as a nervy but highly sexual woman drawn back to her family’s mansion are less thrilling, partly due to the constant oversaturation of image and sound.
In the second act, the scares are replaced by a more obviously sexual element and from this point, the film starts to flounder. We’re constantly hit over the head with innuendo, and even the smallest and subtlest of gestures is blown up into a lusty, breathy explosion of cinematic masturbation on the part of the directors. The camera prowls and leers at Ana’s supple young body with an obsessive gaze but struggles to tell a story or scratch beneath the flesh of her psycho-sexual fears. The third act goes some way to bringing the scares of the first part and the sensuality of the second together, but this at point the aesthetic schematics start to take their toll and the pacing drags. There’s little substance beyond the bravado technique.
There are some genuinely unsettling scenes amid the modulating sound effects and astonishingly detailed visuals, and some stock scares, too. The potent bath scene is perhaps the best sequence of its kind since La Diaboliques and Psycho, while Ana’s prising of the timepiece from her dead granddad’s rotting fingers in the opening act offers a wonderful mix of semi-supernatural spookiness and nerve-shredding terror in which fear of the unknown threatens to intrude with each passing second.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are clearly huge fans of giallo and they know how to use technology to inspire an audience literate in the genre. The Soundtrack, featuring tracks culled from renowned Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Stelvio Cipriani, is an unashamed homage to the sounds of sixties and seventies giallo. The iconography of the genre is also referenced heavily, including razor-blade wielding POV shots and good old fashioned eyeball close-ups by the bucketload.
Sure, telling a story with image and sound is what moving pictures are all about, but Amer’s slight plotline is not compelling enough to be told in such a hyper real manner. It’s hard not to imagine how much more successful Amer’s three acts would have been as unique short films, but as a feature-length flick, its sublime style soon becomes banal and headache-inducing.