Saturday 15 January 2011

I Amer Camera

Amer 2009
France/Belgium Directed by
Hélène Cattet
& Bruno Forzani
This film currently
screening at
UK cinemas

Amer is, simply put,
a wonderful movie.
Go see it.

Oh, okay. You want me to elaborate on that, don’t you? Right, here we go then...

It would seem, perhaps, overstating the obvious to identify that Cattet and Forzani’s Amer uses all the techniques and visual/musical trapping of the brilliant genre of the Italian giallo movie (explicity, those made in the period of the classic gialli of the 1960s and early to mid 70s ). Pretty much everyone who’s seen this movie and who is familiar with the genre (which I wrote a very long article about here) have picked that up.

Of course, the section of the audience who are not “up” on their gialli are not going to recognise that... and so I expect a fair number of the people who are going to be looking at this movie are going to find it very fresh indeed. To us long-in-the-tooth veterans, however, there’s still a certain freshness and pacing to the way in which these stylistic techniques are revitalised and, dare I say it, “adrenalised” which make Amer a movie to be reckoned with. Let’s call it retro-fresh then! ;-)

For starters, though, I should put out a warning to people who like dialogue laden movies or ones which tell a story, to be the sole choice of celluloid food on their menu of film... this movie really doesn’t have much in the way of story and very little dialogue for its 90 minutes. If you want something which is a linear ride from point A to B then you’re in for a disappointment. It is a narrative, linear structure to be fair but... it doesn’t really add up to anything really coherent or resolved without you as an audience bringing your own interpretations to bear and impose quite strongly on the visual evidence presented before your eyes.

I can summarise Amer for you very quickly but it won’t lead to closure or even enlightenment in terms of narrative structure... although, to be fair to this consideration, it does at least have a framework on which to hang a semblance of ideas on... but the essence of Amer is that it’s very much, in some ways, a surrealist movie. Here you go then. Here’s my brief summary...

The film is split into three parts.

Part One tells the story of a little girl running around a spooky and frankly disturbing and scary house as she tries to deal with her mum and dad, a dead body and a female monster presence (presumably one of her grandmothers) who you never really get a proper look at as it pursues her to regain a “magical” charm in the form of a pocket watch with an eyeball on it. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I need to see it again.

Part Two is the girl as an adolescent teenager who goes into the local village with her mother (who is having her hair cut) and there she kicks a teenage boy’s football away before chasing after it and feeling sexual attraction to a gang of bikers as she walks past them... for which her mother slaps her.

Part Three is about the same girl grown to womanhood who returns to the abandoned house, gets freaked out by the taxi driver who brought her there (who may or may not be the boy who got his football kicked) and who may or may not be the guy who is now pursuing her through the house and trying to stab her... although that figure could also be herself chasing herself in her minds eye. Not made my mind up yet... only seen it once (and will watch it many times more in my life I suspect).

Ok... that probably sounds quite weird as a plot summary but, if it does, then I’ve done my job because it will hopefully convey the surreal atmosphere created by the movie.

There’s a lot to look at here and people who are into “movies about movies” (like the perverse pleasures offered by the cinema of extremely referential directors like Quentin Tarantino) will love this movie. It hits all the right spots. The opening section of the three sections which comprise the movie is very similar in mood and tone to master giallo maker Dario Argento’s horror movie Inferno. The whole movie, of course, in its homage to the giallo film is using that highly stylised, extreme colour lighting scheme favoured by both Dario Argento and Mario Bava (who helped Argento out on Inferno) but certainly this opening with it’s “monster” figure in barely glimpsed aggression is very similar to the earlier New York sequences of the afore-mentioned Argento flick.

The first section also wears on it’s sleeve the “eyeball watching” shots that Argento favours in such movies as Tenebre and even alludes in some sequences to those great Italian giallo and spaghetti western title sequences which had posterised, single colour versions of the film’s protagonists moving around the screen against a black background (like one of the original trailers to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). In fact the whole “giallo-stew” approach sounds like it could fall apart quite easily but the techniques using the age old voyeuristic “something-is-watching-this-unfold-and-it-may-just-be-you” approach combined with very dynamic editing, some of which seems like the fast-cut editing on Hopper’s Easy Rider but with a slightly less intrusive, won’t-pop-you-out-of-the-movie sensibility are very skillfully and assuredly approached by the writer/directors and the whole thing is a complete joy to watch.

What hasn’t been mentioned much, or so it seems to me, is the less than giallo-like ingredients to the movie. The middle section is an impressive and subtly made (if less than subtly conveyed) homage to burgeoning sexual desire which would be less influenced by Italian giallo and more heavily influenced, I would suspect, by British and American movies of the early to late sixties. And the joyous and kinetic explosion of visual and sound editing that is the “chasing after the football sequence” is such an assault on the senses (at least in the cinema) that I heard it already being mockingly parodied by members of the audience on leaving the cinema (it has to be said that of the three people I went to see this with, only one of them liked it a bit while the other two seemed to fairly actively dislike/ridicule it... always a sign of a good movie).

The third part is, again, great for fans of gialli in that it features such iconic images as the black leather gloves, the big bugger of a stabby knife and even at one point, a briefly and deeply redish reference to David Hemmings attacking the plaster wall in Argento’s Profondo Rosso!

And all this done with a brilliant, enhanced sound design which sounds just like the exaggerated sounds you would find in Alan Splet’s wonderful soundscapes for the early movies of David Lynch (so think giallo mixed with Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and this will give you some idea of what to expect).

And then of course, as you inevitably do with many of my reviews, you come to the music... and in Amer it’s quite important. Any doubt in your mind that the directors aren’t consciously employing a “giallo style” to their movie will evaporate as soon as your hear the first notes of the music used in this film. It’s one of those needle drop scores which has been assembled from music from other films and this one quite specifically uses the music from three famous gialli... and what a thrill it was to hear them belting out in really great, crystal clear sound from the speakers in the cinema. More specifically, the music mostly comes from three movies which have a very distinct and visual style... and since their are two very distinct visual approaches to scoring gialli (there is the atonal meets jazz style scoring of films like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Short Night of the Glass Dolls and there is the Goblin inspired progressive-rock style scoring used in movies like Deep Red, Tenebre and Sleepless), it’s interesting to note that the makers of Amer went with one specific style as opposed to a mixture of the two. Specifically, the three most blatantly used scores in Amer seem to be from (to my tired old ears)... Bruno Nicolai’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, Ennio Morricone’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula and Selvio Ciprianni’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters? I think there are probably a couple of others in there but certainly those ones are fairly prominent. The musical selections are also very sparsely spotted so they are certainly quite stand out, in that they’re not buried in the usual wall-to-wall musical overkill which a lot of modern movies are burdened with.

All in all, then, I can unhesitatingly recommend Amer to anyone who loves looking at the way the raw building blocks of the language of the cinema can be used to manipulate the senses and attitudes of an audience... this is definitely “future text book” stuff and I can’t wait to see what this writing/directing team do next. A genuine, for once, roller coaster ride of a movie with sounds and images which will be haunting you long after the last frame of celluloid has uncoiled from the projector and I can’t wait to pick up the DVD! Lucky for me the R2 rush-release DVD comes out towards the end of this month then! Hurrah!


  1. A brain-popping movie! I like the word "retro-fresh" and all that it entails in a remake--just what one would want. Also very much appreciated is how this flick stands in context with other films. This looks like a must-see. You've sold me on it! maybe I'll be on the ridiculing side, maybe not...

  2. A suprisingly balanced review coming from your good self. Well done!