This ingenious art-house psychodrama dazzled critics and angered some horror fans for much the same reason. For though Amer pays homage to the Italian giallo horror-thrillers of yesteryear, it is not a violent murder mystery at all. Instead, debuting writer-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani adopt the visual motifs of the giallo genre’s foremost pioneers, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and others, with their propensity for psychosexual surrealism and sensual strangeness, to produce a probing psychological study of a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. The end result is wondrously crafted and simply a superb piece of cinema.
Our story unfolds in three parts. In the first, a little girl named Ana (Cassandra Forêt) inhabits a spooky old mansion where her stern mother (Bianca Maria D’Amato) and father (Jean-Michel Vovk) mourn the death of her grandfather (Bernard Marbaix). Through a keyhole, Ana spies a mysterious, black veiled figure lurking in her grandfather’s room, who may be the family’s troublesome maid Graziella (Delphine Brual) or else something else entirely. Drawn to shiny golden watch clasped in the old man’s lifeless fingers, the child unwisely pilfers the trinket.
What follows is a nerve-jangling tribute to the “Drop of Water” segment from Bava’s Black Sabbath (1964) by way of Argento’s Suspiria (1977). The child is first taunted by ghostly visions of dripping water, then pursued both by the ghastly, wraithlike maid and the old man’s shambling, rotten corpse. However, the key moment occurs midway through the chase wherein Ana stumbles inside her parents’ bedroom and spies them having sex. This sight so incomprehensible to her young mind that the movie itself, audaciously breaks down in one of several inspired, apt and evocative editing flourishes indulged by Cattet and Forzani.
Some years later, the second story opens on the image of an ant crawling across the navel of a now beautiful, teenaged Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud - who resembles a young Beatrice Dalle). The soundtrack plays a thematically apt excerpt from Stelvio Cipriani’s score for What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) as an array of sensual close-ups on lips, skin and fluttering hair convey her blossoming allure. A walk into town with her mother turns into a game of sexual one-upmanship as they subtly vie for the attention of every male around. Ana is ogled by a little boy playing football and later by a biker gang whose attentions seem both menacing and exciting.
Whereas your average giallo was contentedly voyeuristic, Cattet and Forzani are as much interested in probing young Ana’s psychological reaction to all this attention. Virtually dialogue free, events unfold largely through pure cinema: a startling, stimulating collage of frantic sighs and anatomical close-ups, skin against skin, leaves caressing flesh, dress hems flapping in the wind, culminating in an extraordinary chase montage between Ana and the boy wherein the rhythmic editing conveys the giddy head-rush of adolescent passion, almost mimicking the sexual act itself.
In the third story, the adult Ana (Marie Bos) returns home after a cab ride becomes another erotically-charged battle of wills with the brutish driver (Harry Cleven). Italian pop star/actor Adriano Celentano croons the theme from Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) as Ana arrives back at the house haunted by either literal or figurative ghosts from her past. As she wanders through the overgrown garden, grassy stems and thorny plants appear to reach forth and caress her body, while the mansion’s crumbling interiors immediately evoke memories of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Shock (1976), both stories of women whose minds are warped by exposure to decaying haunted houses. But it is Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) we think of when a psycho-killer in a black trenchcoat tries to drown Ana in the bathtub then pursues her through the woods, a tense cat and mouse set-piece styled after Torso (1973) but culminating in a twist evocative of Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) that, while guessable, is intriguingly perverse. Cattet and Forzani's bravura filmic technique draws viewers into a realm of the senses, but is equally interested in stimulating our collective intellect in a manner that sets this apart from many gialli that have their roots in the exploitation genre. It is a rare film that successfully draws us inside someone's inner world and gives us the heady thrill of seeing our surroundings through fresh eyes. Horror fans should lay their prejudices aside and savour this for the heady, intoxicating cinematic potpourri of ideas that it is.