Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VI): Amer (2009) dir. Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Logline: A triptych of sex and death. In the first segment, Ana (Cassandra Forêt), a young girl, has strange and frightening encounters with her wraith-like grandmother on the eve of her grandfather's funeral. In the second segment, Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), now an adolescent, savors the sensory delights of the world and the attention of men during a trip into town with her mother (Bianca Maria D'Amato). In the final segment, Ana (Marie Bos), now an adult herself, returns to her abandoned childhood home to confront her past and is instead confronted by a black-gloved killer brandishing a straight-razor.

Analysis: Amer is about the perils (and pleasures) of psychosexual development gone horribly awry. Freudian psychoanalytic theories have long been entwined with horror cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, but rarely so explicitly as they are in this Belgian-French thriller. The film dramatizes an extreme case of sexual repression, with our patient-- the young, adolescent, and finally middle-aged Ana-- confusing Eros and Thanatos during her latent stage of childhood development. To confuse, perhaps conflate sex and death at such a delicate period in one's life will create obvious issues later on. Thus, we watch as Ana grows up into a woman who simultaneously courts and resists sexual attention, as if the prospect of sex is akin to a primal threat of violence and a gateway to the ultimate sensual pleasure.

We witness the root of Ana's repression taking hold in the film's first segment, when Ana walks in on her parents having sex immediately before the family is to attend its decrepit patriarch's funeral. The film tells us that this is a key moment: Ana's eyes go wide, and glass cracks and breaks across the the image of her face as the lights illuminating the screen shift between vibrant primary and secondary colors. She sees her mother on her back in a fit of ecstasy, looking much like a corpse on a slab, or like the corpse of her grandfather in the other room. Her father's sexual thrusting looks like the mindless violence of a killer thrusting a knife. The damage is done.

Ana has this traumatic encounter after being chased around the house by her ghastly, witchy grandmother, who is perpetually veiled in black lace to conceal her horrific visage. For the child Ana, this elderly presence, with its extreme age, opaque habits, and proximity to death, exists as a personification of death itself, always in pursuit of us mortals from the day we're born. However, these feelings don't dissuade Ana from her attraction to the death that the elderly figures in her life represent. We see her recklessly spy on her grandmother's arcane activities, and she steals her dead grandfather's jewelry from his corpse (going so far as to use a crucifix to pry it from his rigor mortised hands). The threat and presence of death will continue to have an allure for Ana.

In the film's second section, we watch as Ana's mother recognizes a connection that Ana has already made: through her daughter, who has now grown into sexual maturity, she sees that she is being replaced by a younger copy of herself and thus becomes aware of her own mortality, recognizing (as Ana already does, in her own twisted fashion) that the price of sex (read: reproduction) is death. As the two women strut into town in their sundresses and consciously attract the gazes of the men they're passing by, each is acutely aware of the other's position in life. Ana sees her mother's graying temples and smugly smirks; her mother sees her daughter's budding sensuality and tries desperately to hold its hand like a mother would a small child, to prevent it from blossoming.

But, for Ana, her blossoming is a complicated life event. We notice as the wind blows onto her body and an ant crawls across her skin that Ana has become keenly aware of the sensual pleasures that the world now has to offer her. Thus, the sexual attention of the men she encounters on this trip into town is somewhat appealing, but it's also clearly threatening. As she walks, alone, past a large group of rugged and dangerous looking motorcyclists, we understand her to be pulling her windblown dress down out of both feigned modesty and a genuine sense of fear. She's intrigued by the pleasure these men have the potential to now offer her, but she's also cognizant (however rightly or wrongly) of the danger in embracing such sexual pleasures.

In the third section of the film, we learn that Ana's predicament has resulted in a frigid and apprehensive adulthood. She has forsaken sexual activity, imagining every male she encounters in her daily travels as a threat to her safety. We meet her as she is returning (for reasons unknown) to her family's abandoned villa, the site of her traumatic experience and the catalyst of her sexual repression. While there, wandering the villa's empty rooms and hallways, her psychological troubles come to a head as she is stalked by a masked, black-gloved madman who is attempting to violate her (in one way or another). Is this villain the rugged, dangerous-looking cab driver who drove her there? After all, he knows where she's staying and that she's staying there alone. Have Ana's fears of the men around her proven justly founded?

The reality of Ana's situation is more psychologically complex than baseless paranoia. The killer she encounters (who first attacks her while she's getting perhaps a little too comfortable with her own body in the bathtub) is no one but herself, projected outwardly into the world by her psyche as a separate entity. She lives in fear of her own desire for sexual pleasure, imagining this desire as a faceless, psychotic male waving around a phallic straight-razor. For Ana to express her sexuality in any form (by herself or with a friend) is to beckon the violent reaction of this other persona, who appears to have taken the place of her grandmother in her psyche as the primal figure of Death. While her mind primarily views this entity as something separate from herself and looking to punish her, she also opportunely uses the persona to punish others: when the cab driver eventually does show up at the villa (for purposes unknown but probably no good), Ana, adopting this persona, brutally carves him up with her razor. For all, the price of sex must be death. Ana is certain of this.

So certain is Ana of the correlation between sex and death, that she stabs her personified sexual desire in the gut to avoid confronting it, inadvertently causing her own death by gut wound. When we next see her, in the film's final images, she's on a slab in the mortuary, being delicately, perhaps sensually manipulated by the hands of an unseen mortician. Her expressions, in death, mirror those of her mother during sex, and the soundtrack is filled with low, ghostly sighs, as if she's actually responding to touch. In death, her confusion of Eros and Thanatos is reconciled if by nothing more than the fact that there's nothing to fear from the death that has already caught up to her. This isn't an unhappy ending: we discover that for Ana, the price of death is sex. And, as we see in the final frames before the credits roll, a little bit of much-needed postmortem physical attention has the ability to break down psychological barriers and animate the coldest and clammiest of souls.

Technical Merits: The technical merits of Amer should be immediately obvious to anyone with working senses. It's one of those "every frame deserves to be screencapped" pictures. Directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are practitioners of a high style, using sound and image to communicate their story and its themes without the use of exposition or dialogue. (The few small snippets of dialogue in the film's first segment don't serve as meaningful exceptions.) The technique the the pair employ switches frequently and with ease, like when transitioning from the first episode's Jan Svankmajer-style frenetic focus on abstracted actions and objects to the second segment's Spaghetti Western-inspired protracted dramatic tension. Amer's style is also a jumble of visual and aural associations from Italian fantasy-horrors of the 1970s: Cattet and Forzani's framing plucks exact shots from the work of Argento and Bava, and their soundtrack effectively repurposes the music of Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai. Pilfer they might, but they pilfer from the greats.

Relevance: Despite the popular consensus that Cattet and Forzani's Amer is a blatant (if possibly egregious) homage to the Italian giallo thriller, the truth is that the film's homage extends to most areas of Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s. Sure, the film's longest episode is given over completely to giallo elements and imagery, but signifiers throughout the remainder of the film call to our minds other genres, like the Argento-style supernatural horror film (as in all of the first episode), Leone-esque Spaghetti westerns (as in the incessant, tension-filled close-ups on eyes in the second episode), and poliziotteschi crime films (as in the use of several soundtrack selections recycled from genre classics).

Amer doesn't strive to be a flashy contemporary giallo; rather, it succeeds on its own merits by taking a recurrent giallo theme (the Freudian sex/death confusion), filtering it through the kaleidoscope of '70s Italian cinema in toto, and then translating it into French, creating a lurid and often dizzying demonstration of the artistry inherent in the era's diverse sights and sounds. In this sense, Amer could be seen as a celebration of others' work, and that it is, but its originality lies in its complex rearrangement and intensification of those cherry-picked motifs and visual/audial elements. In flaccid-- if more digestible-- terms, it's less of a Greatest Hits than it is a collection of recognizable but undeniably distinct (and weirdly alien) remixes. Thus, Amer is brain candy for any critically-minded viewer of Italian horror cinema, alternately numbing and igniting the synapses as it stalks its merry way across the cortex.

To grasp the subtlety of Cattet and Forzani's approach to their material in Amer, one need look no further than their follow-up feature, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (2013), a study in cinematic excess and incoherence. Minus the Belgian duo's still obvious talent as visual filmmakers, their relentless experimental tendencies, and their expert use of genre soundtrack greats, their sophomore effort all too frequently resembles what Amer's detractors claimed that film was: a cluttered, pretentious film-school appropriation of the giallo. Put into juxtaposition with one another, Amer must now seem the more tasteful approach to lovers and haters all.

No comments:

Post a Comment