Beginning with the creation of an immensely stylish, achingly attractive, split-screen, multi-panel title sequence -- over-which is overlaid Bruno Nicolai’s haunting theme from “The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail” -- French/Belgium arthouse filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani then proceed to forge what soon emerges as an aesthetically perfect bubble of timeless giallo magic with their magnificent debut feature “Amer” – possibly the most densely woven skein of postmodern retro pastiche ever conceived for the screen. During ninety minutes in which barely a handful of words are ever spoken by anyone, and the only music presented comes from a carefully selected suite of six cues filched from the lengthy ‘70s back catalogues of giallo and polizieschi titles composed by Nicolai, Morricone and Cipriani, the film relates a thinly sketched but utterly entrancing tale of one woman’s strange sexual awaking and subsequent perverted desires, as she moves from the haunted fairy-tale terrors of her childhood into a sensuous Mediterranean bliss of Pop Art orchestrated adolescent longing, and finally on into the barely containable lusts and fetishes that mark an adulthood still stalked by the shadows of black gloved ghosts from the past.
“Amer” is a three act art film that aggregates around a stream-of-consciousness montage -- a slide show of nostalgically remembered genre images, often recreating shots from particular much-loved genre films, particularly if they were made by Dario Argento in the 1970s. It’s built on the Freudian sex-equals-death subtext often implied in the works of that director, and meticulously recreates the particular but rarely equalled retro lighting effects of such films; it mimics their décor, architecture and iconography, and even the filmic texture of the imagery to be found in a host of other cult films from the giallo and Eurobiss erotica movement of the 1970s.
But it is not in of itself a giallo film (something which might alienate those viewers expecting or looking for anything resembling a linear plot) but a sort of forensic, hyper-realised reiteration of the genre’s recurrent themes, motifs and visual tropes, writ large on the screen then foregrounded and perpetually repeated in such a manner as to practically turn them into exhibition pieces for an art gallery’s film instillation. It probably won’t mean an awful lot to anybody not already preoccupied with an appreciation of the sort of cinema the film pays careful homage to, but for anyone (like me) whose been obsessively immersed for years in the works of Argento, Bava, Martino and Dallamano et al, I can only describe the sensation of watching this film as being something akin to gorging yourself on a full box of luxury soft-centre chocolates and then feeling slightly dizzy and a little sick with sugar-delight afterwards.
The artistic high of Dario Argento’s mid-seventies baroque period is the most frequent reference point to which Cattet and Forzani’s self-written film tribute returns time and time again. The first act is a particularly intense recreation of the black fairy tale atmospherics of “Suspiria”, with a side-helping of malevolent rural witchcraft from Pupi’ Avati’s “The House with the Laughing Windows” and a smidge of Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” -- both beautifully integrated with its ornate dark fairy tale ambience for good measure.
Cassandra Forêt plays the young Ana, a girl who lives with her emotionally remote parents (played by Bianca Maria D'Amato and Jean-Michel Vovk) in a large rambling villa that looks like the one from “Profondo Rosso” on the outside and recreates the labyrinthine art deco byways of the Tanzakademi on the inside. Forêt brilliantly plays the Suzy Banyon figure of the piece -- all secretive wide-eyed innocence and wonder -- spending her days spying on events to which she is not privy through a succession of tantalising keyholes, and intermittently being menaced by her black-clad, lace-veiled Grandmother, whose mysterious comings and goings she sets out to uncover.
This leads her to the Mother of Sighs-like discovery of the mummified remains of her Grandfather ensconced in a downstairs room, and the witnessing of her parents in the act of coitus, which literally recreates the ‘broken mirrors, broken minds’ line of dialogue from “Suspiria” on screen, as Ana’s startled image shatters into innumerable shards before our eyes and the film descends into a vivid horror show representation of the shock and damage this association is to bring to her brittle psyche, drenched in a Suspiria-esque refractive spectrum of intense colours that floods through the imagery on the screen from then on. This first half-hour alone is a pure aesthetic delight for the Argentophiles in the audience: the rasping breathy sighs and whispers in the sound design (to reoccur in various contexts throughout the film), a trunk full of broken china dolls, strange supernatural manifestations, a black laced hand reaching from under a bed, and the screen splattered in fluorescent lighting gels with a bold recklessness that makes “Suspiria” seem almost subtle.
Although this first section of the film is doused in the suggestive imagery of the ‘70s Italian supernatural horror film and feels at first almost like a straightforward tribute, in much the same spirit as the recent “House of the Devil” for example, Cattet and Forzanti’s deliberate over-use of extreme close-up shots of the eyes of the protagonists (a Fulci trademark taken to almost parody levels here) jarring accumulating edits of weird camera angles and frequent jump cuts, produces a distancing, abstract effect. It actually took me two viewings to have any clear idea of what was meant to be going on in this section, atmospheric though it undoubtedly is. The directors are deliberately drawing our attention throughout to the fact that they’re recreating specific effects by seemingly deliberately over-egging them, making them become abstract through constant reiteration: we get a shot from above through a ceiling light bulb while Ana is preparing for bed, another through a window looking in from outside – both recreated from “Suspiria”; then, as the intense red, blue, green and violet lighting gels turn the screen into a strange, beguiling nightmare world, the imagery becomes more abstract and surrealistic still, while the soundtrack pays homage to the “A Drop of Water” segment from Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath”.
The second act represents Ana’s adolescence and the gradual awakening and emergence of her sexual curiosity. Played with a sulky, pouting petulance by Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud, Ana is now depicted moving through a world that feels like it belongs in some kind of sun-drenched slice of ‘70s, giallo-based European erotica by Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino or Massimo Dallamano -- something that looks as though it’s just recently been restored for DVD with that particular ‘Blue Underground’ look to it! Ana and her mother’s dreamy promenade through the gates of their villa, along a cliff-top highway, and down to the cobbled streets of a nearby village, becomes a showcase for the teenager’s emerging awareness of her own awkward, adolescent sexuality, and for her beginning to see its effects on others – the interest of some sweaty, beady-eyed males (more longing occular close ups!) and the mistrust of her mother – as well as the stirring of her own apparently dark interests.
Choreographed to the quirky brass-driven sashay of a Stelvio Cipriani cue from “What Have They Done to Your Daughters?”, Ana’s own self-awareness and the gaze of others are both conveyed via the loving objectification of her nubile body by the camera, with a succession of images that recall the lurid sexualised imagery common to the Jess Franco style of Euro-erotica. The walk down to the village becomes something of a stylized viewers’ guide to the high points of giallo sleaze and excess of the period – starting with the grainy autumnal textures and moods of Dallamano’s “What Have They Done to Solange?” as Ana and her Mother leave the gated grounds of their villa home, and proceeding in an uncommonly accurate recreation of the airy Mediterranean blue vistas of the Italian countryside found in Sergio Martino films such as “Torso” and “Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have The Key”. In the old village full of winding cobbled streets and dusty courtyards, we enter the world of Mario Bava’s “Lisa and the Devil” and “Kill Baby … Kill!” – and sure enough, Ana finds herself compelled to engage in a race for a bouncing white ball (like that seen in both films) with a local village boy, and discovers the first stirrings of the dark undercurrents of sexual fetish when she meets a leather-clad gang of bikers at the bottom of a hill – something that clearly piques her interest.
The final act gives us Ana as an adult, played by Marie Bos in a flimsy dress and Soledad Miranda-style knee-length leather boots, returning to her childhood home after apparently many years away. Ana seems to have become the kind of sexually repressed yet tragically sensual heroine that frequently populated the Horrotica of Jess Franco in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She is driven to distraction by the press of bodies on a tube train and sinks into a bizarre and surreal revelry of desire during the steaming hot taxi ride to the Villa des Corbieres of her childhood, imagining the wind from the open car window tearing at the flimsy seams of her dress, under the stern gaze of the granite-faced taxi driver who clutches the wheel in black leather sports gloves. Even the scrape of thorns and brambles against her flesh as she makes her way through the overgrown foliage surrounding the now dilapidated villa seems to have a sexual frisson, that associates pain with pleasure, to it.
At once we are back in Argento land: Ana exploring a “Profondo Rosso” world of falling plates of glass, flapping window shutters, dusty rooms full of (her own) childhood detritus, and the obligatory peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster, scraped from her long abandoned bedroom wall. Water imagery seems particularly associated with sex in the film. With that in mind, Ana finds a strange, sensual and surreal way of filling a bath using only a comb as a masturbatory aid! But this opens other floodgates of fetishized desire, which have been bubbling under the surface all the way through the film. The iconographic giallo trope of the black gloved killer is finally unleashed in all its twisted glory in a Repulsion-like conclusion that borrows primarily from “Tenebrea” for its over-lit night time imagery (designed to be obvious in its use of day-for-night filters, by seemingly seeking out the incongruous shadows and the glint of sunlight on the ocean which gives them away) and “Opera” for its overtly sexual approach to the stalk and slash dynamic.
Dario Argento once famously likened the relationship between victim and killer in his films to that of two lovers, and the act of murder to that of sex. The sexualized death scene and the schizoid psychology of protagonists and antagonists in Dario Argento’s films are taken to surreal heights of detailed reconstruction and exaggeration here: the act of slicing flesh is unequivocally likened to an act of sexual penetration in pornographically lingering shots of a glinting cut-throat razor blade sensually pricking and caressing the goose fleshed skin of a victim with a lover’s sighing touch -- before plunging and stabbing and slicing into it with greedy abandon. Sound design is hugely important to Cattet and Forzani’s creative vision. Sound in “Amer” is as lovingly detailed and fetishized as the images. Throaty rasps issue from darkened corners; the brittle clink-clink of a razor being tenderly articulated by its black gloved owner, and the heightened, erotically charged creak & crunch of leather on leather as he/she move through the night.
Shot on 16 mm film and blown up to 35 mm to recreate the grainy effect of 1970s exploitation cinema “Amer” seems to be perhaps the last word in a bygone genre and a mode of making cinema that has long since passed into history. It is also the summation of an obsession with giallo movies that has expressed itself for some time previously in the short films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, four out of five of which are included along with the main feature on this Blu-ray disc. Shot with still-frame diapositives “Catharsis” (2000) … Or the Self Destruction of a Giallo is a 3 minute abstract piece with a soundtrack which seems to have been partially recycled later for a portion of “Amer”. It perhaps owes more to the splatter gru and gore of eighties Lucio Fulci films than Argento’s cannon, although it does mark the start of the duo’s obsession with the lighting gels of “Suspiria” and “Inferno”. It’s primarily more concerned with recreating an even-more gory version of the head-drilling scene from “The City of the Living Dead” though.
“Chambre Jaune” (2002) … Or The Ambiguous Relationship between Victim and Assassin in Giallo, features still-frame and live action and is more overtly Argento-esque in style. It was the first collaboration with the team who would go on to work on all Cattet and Forzani’s films up to and including “Amer”: cinematographer Manuel Dacosse and editor Bernard Beets. There are specific shots here which can be seen to be recreations of images from “Opera”, “Cat O’ Nine Tails” and “Suspiria” but the film is mainly a dry run for the climactic sequence in “Amer” where the eroticisation of murder with a razor and a pair of black gloves is taken to heightened extremes.
“L’ Etrange Portrait de La Dame en Jaune” (2004) … Or Murder as Performance, is another homage to “Suspiria”, shot with one unvarying camera set-up and detailing the gel-lit attack of a gloved assailant on his beautiful victim. Once again, murder is explicitly eroticised in what becomes a moving painting of beautifully lit violence and excess.
Finally, La Fin de Notre Amour (2003) … Or the problem of Couples in the Giallo, is the most surreal of the bunch, featuring a naked Jean-Michel Vovk (who has been in everything the duo have ever shot) trying to negotiate what appears to be a warped sexual relationship with a razor wielding lady in a leather mac and black hat, who looks like the killers in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and “Profondo Rosso”!
These films were shot on digital video or with diapositive still-frames but look surprisingly film-like after post production. The films come with a text introduction for each one and are preceded by a general introduction, also written by the filmmakers. The menus on this excellent UK Blu-ray from a newly revitalized Anchor Bay are particularly stylishly done and the main feature looks as rich and as beautifully detailed in HD as you’d hope and expect. There is plenty of grain, of course – but it is all meant to be there as part of the filmmakers’ aesthetic tribute to DVD-restored giallo films from the ‘70s. The 2.0 Stereo audio pounds out with satisfying violence and the retro music cues which have been used to soundtrack key sequences have never sounded so rich and deep -- particularly the opening Bruno Nicolai piece.
Intense, magical, surreal, violent and highly erotic, It hardly needs to be said then that this is an essential purchase for all fans of giallo and the work of Dario Argento in particular, although it does perhaps drive home the fact that the director’s own work has long ceased to be anywhere near as evocative and as challenging as is this nostalgic arthouse reverie for a lost era of cinema.