AMER: Not the Worst Movie Ever

Shortly before sitting down to watch the French avant-horror film Amer (playing again next week!), I overheard a guy who’d just attended an earlier screening exclaim that the movie was the absolute worst he’d ever seen*. Remarks like this ought to snare any moviegoer with an ounce of intellectual curiosity and the willingness to potentially waste ninety minutes. You can riskily assume that ranting dude is right and head back out of the theater, but hearing them means there’s like a fifty-fifty chance you’ve already bought a ticket, and a safer assumption, anyway, is that—whether or not you end up liking it—you’re about to see something unique. And so Amer is.

Trailer NSFW, or for the squeamish

From start to finish, Amer is a work of total stylistic excess, with co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzan going for broke in nearly every scene. But when this works, which is often, it provides for exceptionally immersive moviemaking. Cattet and Forzan follow a young woman, Ana, from childhood adulthood, focusing on three key moments in her life. The film’s first scenes find her as a little girl, troubled by fears of the body of her recently-deceased grandfather, which lies for the moment in her house, by her feral-seeming still-living grandmother, and by the many dark corners of her home. Ana’s fears are rendered with an array of close-ups, quick cuts, severe perspective shots, and a palette of bold red, blues, and greens. (And for that matter, with minimal dialogue—inasmuch as a narrative through-line exists in Amer, we viewers are drawing it, connecting the powerful images the film offers up.) The effect is that, although we’re watching Ana, everything we see also suggests her interiority–filmic free-indirect discourse.

Amer’s thoroughly non-horror middle third picks up with Ana in her teens, providing elliptical glimpses at conflicts with parents and her developing sexual consciousness. There’s little at stake, and consequently it’s the dullest section of the film, but Cattet and Forzan continue to play with sound, with perspective, with the other tools at their disposal to make vivid the sensations an onscreen person’s experiencing. Also, in order to go off the deep end, a person can’t already be in the deep end, which, the movie’s final third takes place in the deep end: for-real scary movie stuff. Ana returns to her childhood home, now dilapidated, as an adult, and quickly finds herself on the run from attackers both real and (maybe) imagined. Cattet and Forzan are most in their element when tension is highest, hitting viewers with a barrage of stylistic tricks, and if I’ve mentioned little about the specifics of the threats to Ana near the film’s end, it’s because one of Cattet and Forzan’s accomplishments is making the specifics incidental. Feeling someone feeling scared’s the point.

Throughout Amer, I found myself thinking occasionally of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (congrats Natalie!). Both films deal with subjectivity and madness, dramatizing a young woman’s mental unglue-ening. But Black Swan, while an exploitation movie at its core, wears the feathers of a prestige picture—it is very-carefully made cinematic trash. Cattet and Forzan share many of Aronofsky’s ambitions, but not his pretensions. (Some pretensions, maybe. But not his pretensions.) They’re operating from deep within the genre trenches–Amer was conceived as an homage to Italian horror master Dario Argento–which is to say, they have spent no energy making Amer something Oscar-ready**. What they have done is create an inventive, technically dexterous film about how g.d. scary getting chased by a dude with a straight razor in a dilapidated mansion (and/or maybe losing your mind) would be. It’s the smartest sort of shameless movie.

* I later learned that the guy complaining had actually attended Amer by accident, expecting a documentary about the decline in bee populations. You can’t make this stuff up.

** There are downsides to this—as you can infer from the trailer, the film’s title credits are presented in Impact, which is inexcusable because thousands of cool fonts that people don’t recognize from Microsoft Word are available for like a one-time purchase of ten dollars.

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