Amer: A Horror-Movie Dream

10/28/2010 4:00 AM |

Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

The intoxicated, sexually anxious, almost speechless Amer is pure atmosphere: it rips fear and desire from a narrative context, dropping them instead within the abstraction of hyper-subjectivity. Here, the strange twangs of comb-teeth impart more information—emotional information—than could any line of dialogue. The movie’s all slow pans across peculiar tableaux, zooms, close-ups of eyes. It’s horror cinema unadulterated, exorcised of meaning and imbued with pure feeling.

A Belgian neo-giallo that played New Directors/New Films in April, Amer (French for “bitter”) is split into three sections that focus on one heroine at distinct points in her sexual evolution: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In the first, the child wanders a mansion of ornate tiling, art-deco wallpaper and eerie portraiture, haunted by a mysterious mourner in black lace; what begins as art-house Gothic takes a leap down the rabbit hole into multihued hallucinations and frenzied nightmares after the girl steals her dead grandfather’s pocket watch—from his brittle corpse-fingers—then beholds her mother engaged in the sex act.

Fast forward to her teenage years and a windswept coast, as she and her mother wander wordlessly to a village of ancient stone, where she encounters a motorcycle gang; as she passes through their gauntlet, the wind troubles her dress at the crotch. In the last chapter, a liberating but ravishing open-windowed cab-ride brings her back to the baroque villa of her youth, now in disrepair; upon nightfall, the ghost of her past appears, returning the film to the opaque fever dreams and rococo hysteria that occupied its first half hour, replete with a masochistic shadow-figure wielding a sex-punishing razor blade.

Aggressively obscure, Amer is dreamy in the purest sense, restoring to cinema a shocking subjectivity it usually lacks: without the comfort of establishing shots or contextualizing dialogue, the movie willfully denies any narrative to form; it plays out as a series of close-ups, with shots laid like the panels of a textless comic book. It’s exactly what (you’d imagine) watching a stranger’s dreams, or even your own, would be like: nonsensical, but stirring. The stylish production design and showy camera style self-consciously recall the films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and others—movies from which the directors even borrow their soundtrack—but Amer pushes those tropes into nonrepresentational realms. It’s like an un-chaperoned trip through memory, id and fantasy, with the guideposts removed—the lines between all three not just blurred or even erased, but made to seem as though they never existed.

Opens October 29