For those of you as yet unfamiliar with the genre the “giallo” (plural “gialli”) is a 20th Century Italian genre of literature and film that gets it name from its literal meaning (“yellow”) in reference to its origin as a series of cheap paperback novels with trademark yellow covers. From its birth back in 1963 with Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (“La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo”) the genre has given birth to such colourfully monikered fare as Luciano Ercoli’s “The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion” (1970), Mario Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (1971), Sergio Martino’s “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key” (1972) and Pupi Avati’ s “The House With Laughing Windows” (1976). Such masters of the genre as Mario Bava (and his son Lamberto), Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino have delighted fans since back in the 1970′s though it’s Dario Argento who many have long considered the true godfather of giallo from his “Animal Trilogy” of “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” (1970), “The Cat O’Nine Tails” (1971) and “Four Flies On Grey Velvet” (1971) to the likes of “Deep Red” (1975), “Suspiria” (1977) and “Tenebrae” (1982). It is, therefore, mortifyingly ironic that Argento’s own “Giallo” (2009) finally emerged as such a depressingly average film after a troubled production history, lawsuit and delayed DVD release following Adrien Brody’s claim that he hadn’t received the correct salary for the film.
But leaving such matters behind us we come at last to “Amer” (literal translation “bitter”) the debut film of French directors Héléne Cattet and Bruno Forzani that is both an homage and a love letter to the classic Italian giallo. And from the opening bars of Bruno Nicolai’s 1971 theme from “The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (“La Coda Dello Scorpione”) that accompanies the striking opening credits it’s clear that both Cattet and Forzani are no strangers to the genre as the film is never less that a sumptuous feast for the eyes. And it’s such eyes themselves that are at the very core of the film as the credits begin with a trifurcated vision of three very distinct set of eyes to represent the three stages of Ana’s life that are soon to follow. Yet it’s not just Ana’s eyes that are the focus here as watching is very much one of the primary themes of the film or to be more precise BEING watched, whether through a keyhole, window, mirror or sunglasses these eyes are, by turns, watchful, predatory, unwelcome, lustful and menacing
The film thus unfolds in three very distinct chapters over some 30 years at a grand mansion on a cliff overlooking the Côte d’Azur and begins with a young girl called Ana (Cassandra Forêt) being simultaneously terrified by Graziella, the family’s witch-like housekeeper (Delphine Brual), fascinated by the body of her deceased grandfather (Bernard Marbaix) and shocked into Suspiria-esque lurid technicolour by the sight of her parents (Bianca Maria D’Amato and Jean-Michel Vovk) having sex. And it’s more than likely that it’s during such shenanigans that you’ll decide whether or not this film is for you with the lack of formal narrative, minimal dialogue and overly stylistic visuals either transporting you on a wholly unique sensual experience or leaving you colder than an indifferent eskimo in the frozen section of Iceland! For whilst “Amer” is being marketed as a horror film modern audiences more attuned to the likes of “Saw”, “Final Destination”, “Hostel” and the ultra slick fare of Platinum Dunes innumerable remakes are going to come away sorely disappointed. Yet for audiences who don’t believe a horror film can achieve high art the film is certain to skew such preconceptions even if the decidely ambiguous narrative ultimately may well leave them baffled, bothered and bewildered.
We next meet Ana (now played by Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud) as an adolescent as she accompanies her mother to the hairdressers and, much to her mothers chagrin, encounters a motorbike gang. And whilst this middle section isn’t perhaps quite as gripping as the first the visuals are every bit as arresting as ever with a truly palpable sense of sensuousness following every one of Ana’s steps as she comes under the leering gaze of admiring gentlemen and, in turn, the gang members. Accompanied by the lush refrains of Stelvio Cipriani’s 1974 theme from “The Coed Murders” (“La Polizia Chiede Aiuto”) the simple act of a mother and daughter walking together is played out amidst a multitude of close ups; the breeze gently lifting Ana’s skirt, an ant crawling across her unblemished skin and her long hair seductively brushing against her pouting lips.
Finally we follow the grown up Ana (Marie Bos) from an uncomfortably close encounter with her fellow passengers onboard a train and a highly sexualised literal undressing by the eyes of her taxi driver to her eventual return to the empty, decaying, decidedly Deep Red-esque house accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s beautiful “Un Uomo Si È Dimesso” from Paolo Cavara’s 1971 film “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” (“Tarantola Dal Ventre Nero”). And it’s here that the film builds to a violent, sexual and wholly ambiguous climax via the oh-so familiar giallo tropes of black gloves, razors and plenty of bloodshed alongside an eyeball-slicing allusion to Luis Buñuel’s infamous “Le Chien Andalou” that is sure to leave audiences watching the film through their fingers.
You’ll no doubt have noticed by now the amount of attention I’ve paid to the film’s music (see the attached videos at the end of the review for a sampling of some of the film’s impressive soundtrack) as, in much the same way that Tarantino fills his films full of other people’s music, Cattet and Forzani equally employ tracks from past movies to heighten atmosphere and add a unique musical landscape to be played out across the film. And with a film that features no more than ten lines of dialogue throughout its 90 minute runtime such aural antics are vital in assisting the striking visuals in conveying emotion, fear, tension, suspense and beauty. Creaking doors, footsteps, banging shutters, dripping taps, razors slicing through flesh; each and every sound is ominously exaggerated and makes for an altogether stunning audio experience.
Yet despite such hyperbole I can’t ultimately recommend “Amer” to everybody as whilst I found it to be a fascinating yet flawed work of art there will, no doubt, be many amongst you who’ll dismiss it as little more than an overblown student film lacking in substance and overly reliant on its stylised visuals. Fans and admirers of classic giallo, however, are sure to get a great deal more from the film and whilst the ambiguity of the whole affair is certain to frustrate as much as fuel endless online discussions there’s no doubting that Cattet and Forzani have crafted a hugely impressive film and from a technical standpoint one that is an unalloyed success.
Nonetheless fans of the film are sure to enjoy the Bluray with a transfer that may lack the pristine sharpness of many modern releases yet retains a certain graininess that only furthers the authenticity of the film. Extras wise the teaser and trailer sit alongside four short films (“Catharsis”,”Chambre Jaune”,”L’étrange Portarait de la Dame en Jaune” and “La Fin de Notre Amour”) which, whilst not as visually sumptuous as the main feature, further display Cattet and Forzani’s obsession with the genre as well as their developing skills behind the camera.
“La Coda Dello Scorpione”
Written by Bruno Nicolai
“La Polizia Chiede Aiuto”
Written by Stelvio Cipriani
“La Polizia Ha Le Mani Legate”
Written by Stelvio Cipriani