France/Belgium (2009) Dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani

Broken down into three parts, this loose tribute of sorts to the 1970’s Italian giallo style of film making explores the sexual awakening of a woman named Ana from childhood through to adolescence to adult life.

In the first segment, young Ana (Cassandra Forêt) is wandering about a vast mansion where the cadaver of her late grandfather lay openly on his bed. Around the house Ana is chased by a black veiled figure similar in style to the mourning dress her mother (Bianca Maria D’Amato) is wearing. Ana is haunted by a number of weird images but none are shocking than seeing her mother in flagrante which opens the first door to Ana’s future sexuality.

Next Ana is a teenager (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud) who is aware of the changes to herself and her attraction to the opposite gender, although she is still a minor. It seems that every male she encounters from young to old represents some sort of danger to Ana and her mother is quick to remain the guardian of her daughter’s chastity. The final act sees adult Ana (Marie Bos) returning to the mansion, now a desolate shell of its former self, where the spirits of old persist in plaguing Ana’s life while her sexual allure is apparently too much for some.

I won’t lie to you, I am surprised I managed to glean that much of a synopsis  from this film as it is less a plot based film and more an all out assault on the senses with a common, if rather fragile, thread to hold things together. I don’t mind not having everything spelled out for me in a film but some films are just a little to abstract for my tastes and Amer unfortunately fits into this category for me.

This is one of those cinematic experiences in which the filmmaker clearly has a shed load of ideas and inventive shots to share and film techniques to experiment with but for this writer at least, it would be nice to at least be let in on what it is they are going for. I’m sure there are many who will “get it” and revel in the deep analogous imagery and dense, surreal nightmarish journey Ana is subject to during this 90 minute decent into madness, but there are too many instances where this won’t be possible for everyone.

From the onset we are subject to a barrage of images that are determined to unnerve the viewer and the feeling of transcendence is overwhelming. Ana doesn’t know what is going on and neither do we, yet this odd journey is one from which it is difficult to turn away. Earlier I mentioned giallo and this is an obvious influence on co-writers/directors Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, something they are not shy in demonstrating with Amer.

The multi-coloured filters, extreme close-ups of (almost) all body parts from every conceivable angle, quick cut edits, sound effects that are infinitely louder than they should be – so doors don’t shut, they crash with a reverberating thunderclap that echoes long past it’s natural time span – and a variety of abstract and disparate images used for maximum symbolic effect. All of these elements successful hold the viewers’ attention for the duration even when the narrative has long since been left by the wayside.

The quality of the camerawork is exceptional, especially some of the allusory close up shots – in particular in the second arc where Ana’s sexuality is beginning to expand its hold on her. An ant crawls along her leg and up her skirt, disappearing from view to who knows where, only to be dragged out with a forceful finger then squished as punishment.

Other shots aren’t so subtle, such as the light reflecting from a mirror directly onto Ana’s chest. Another scene that deserves credit sees adult Ana navigating her way off a busy bus and each time she gets close to a male passenger in her way, the near miss between their bodies is a masterfully teasing piece of choreography and camerawork which must have been a pain to edit.

The minimal use of dialogue makes it abundantly clear that this is supposed to be a visual essay and it certainly succeeds on that part, but the caveat is that with such a dangerously exclusive esoteric approach to the story telling, the accusation of this being a “style over substance” vanity project has merit.

But it does look good. Shot in the French Riviera, the sheer beauty of the area is shown off to is fullest and captured with a loving eye while one can almost feel the summer heat and gentle breezes permeate through the screen, such is the intimacy of the camerawork.

As much as the perpetual motion of the visuals effects from shot to shot can be very distracting, they at least serve a purpose in creating the right atmosphere for the scene. When young Ana sees her mother at it, for example, is wonderfully depicted in a mind bending fashion to convey the confusion of what the child has witnessed and tried to process.

I can only hope that the cast members had a clue what was going on and judging by the commitment to their performances they presumably did. For my money, young Cassandra Forêt was the most impressive of the three ladies portraying Ana, although the older ladies were convincing enough and possessed the requisite sexual allure.

Unfortunately for all their hard work, the story loses its way badly in the final act and becomes an unbridled jumble of taut sexually aggressive images en route to the not-unsurprising oblique ending.

Perhaps too surreal for its own good, Amer will either leave you breathless with its visual clout or having nightmares about puberty. A marmite release if there ever was one even among arthouse film fans but a bold and commendable experiment nonetheless.