Tuesday, October 4, 2011

AMER - A Bitter Pill to Swallow

French film-collaborators Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's supremely self-assured feature-length debut hits dvd and blu-ray this week.  Channeling the nervous energy and visual-style of the classic giallo, Amer lovingly remixes the elements of that Italian-horror sub-genre in a manner that brings to mind Quentin Tarantino's career-long use of grindhouse schlock to inspire and inform his work.  Cattet and Forzani, like Tarantino, have clearly absorbed their inspiration, even going so far as to construct an aural accompaniment to the film made up of music works from classic giallos.  The end result of their sampling from that very specific toolbox is a film that aesthetically pays tribute while intellectually interrogating the conceptual trappings of that original source.

Whereas, for instance, the films of Dario Argento openly accept and hyper-utilize the nearly standardized leering found within cinema (especially horror cinema) as it displays and thus mediates and broadcasts uniform (and, one should note, almost exclusively sexualized) notions of the female body, Cattet and Forzani adopt the gaze (a quick primer on feminist film theory and the male gaze here) as a means of challenging the presumptions inherent within both the form and the audience itself.

Constructed of vignette-like segments that chronicle the life of a woman named Ana, Amer follows her transformation from a curious child into the particular type of oversexed woman that typically populates trashy, b-grade European cinema.  The filmmakers exploit this (over)familiarity with lurid depictions of gender to steer us towards assuming that this will be just another giallo in the tradition of Argento, Bava, Fulci and their peers.  Yet the biggest surprise about Amer is its dogged resistance to being a by-the-numbers horror film.  If there are aspects of horror contained within this work, it is the horror of being both the unwilling victim and active manipulator of the gaze, constantly held fast within an atmosphere of potential violence predicated upon one's habitation of a gendered body and the expectations that are thrust upon it.

The result is a fairly confounding concoction of psychosexual titillation mixed with a rote ramping up of tension that tricks the viewer into expecting a violent release at the end of each sequence.  Instead, the filmmakers deny the audience the expected relief, extending the anxiety beyond each of the micro-narratives embedded within the larger piece.  To a certain extent, Cattet and Forzani have it both ways with Amer, exploiting the viewer's weakness for this particular flavor of naughty cinema while actively scolding them for being drawn in by its depictions of raw female sexuality.

And it's the straddling of that line that will lead many viewers to call out the film as being merely sexist pap.  More discerning viewers, especially those who have already digested a good deal of 60s and 70s Italian horror, will likely find themselves peering a bit deeper into what Amer has to offer.  Beyond its magnificent combination of visual and montage techniques, the film reaches beyond mere stylistic flair to grapple with some fairly heady and provocative content.  I, for one, cannot wait to see what these directors come up with next.

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