Looking Through the Keyhole in ‘Amer’
By Sara Century
The genre-bending directing husband and wife duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani have created several fascinating forays into the visual excesses of giallo while dragging the genre into a modern-day context. Their film Amer (2009) created an aesthetically fascinating and violent entry in the aughts horror canon, but beyond its visual appeal, this is a film about sexual repression and a young woman’s fractured persona resulting from an overbearing and strict childhood. This is the rare film that brings both style and surprising depth to its story.
At first glance, Amer is easily broken down as “a giallo in three parts.” Our central character is a girl named Ana who we see at three key times in her life, first in childhood, then as a teen, and finally as an adult woman. The overarching plot tells the story of a young girl’s sexual awakening, taking us from childish curiosity to repressed teenage longing and ultimately to sadomasochistic fantasies, in part spurred by the symbolic ripping of peeling wallpaper in a likely intentional nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story about an unfulfilled housewife, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).
The credits sequence shows Ana’s eyes from various angles and at various times in her life, informing us that this is our POV character. The first segment shows Ana as a girl, stuck in a spacious, clean, repressed household with her volatile mother and her dying, wraith-like grandfather. Ana is frightened by the grim atmosphere and sees her parents having sex through a keyhole, running back and locking herself in her room to avoid an apparently malicious figure roaming the halls. The second shows Ana accompanying her mother on a trip to town. Ana and a boy run down a hill after an errant soccer ball, but the boy catches the ball and leaves her. On her way back, she is gazed at by a lecherous group of older men on motorcycles until her mother arrives and slaps her across the face.
The third segment shows an adult Ana returning to the strange house of her childhood, once moody and vibrant, now empty and decaying. She digs around and takes a long, sensual bath, and is eventually attacked by a leather-clad killer as the film moves fully into the realm of an ’80s slasher, complete with a razor-wielding murderer hot on her heels. Echoing earlier scenes in which Ana attempted to physically outrun her desires, her tale draws to a brutal end. In a direct confrontation, she attacks the killer, but in doing so, she destroys herself.
A couple of key elements of the filmmaking stand out, for instance, the budget was cut drastically before filming began. This led the directors to fully map out each scene by filming test shots ahead of the actual filming, eliminating potentially costly surprises from the production. That meticulous planning of how the film would eventually look is evident in every shot, and the film manages to be fast-paced and frightening even during comparatively quiet scenes.
The soundtrack features a few haunting tracks from prime genre film composers, such as Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, and Stelvio Cipriani. Leaning into borrowing a handful of tracks from existing film soundtracks, the film opens on the jarring, ominous theme from the relatively obscure La Coda Dello Scorpione (1971). The familiar songs root the visuals of the film firmly into the brightly-colored and surreal dreamscapes of giallo.
Visual allegories are everywhere, with pools of water appearing on the floor after Ana sees her parents having sex, a bumpy car ride taking the place of a sexual encounter, eyes looking through keyholes, and ripping wallpaper revealing something hidden underneath. We see the world through Ana’s eyes until we are ultimately cast out of Ana’s vision into the callous observance of an audience seeing her still sexually-charged body on the autopsy table as a technician’s hands lovingly caress her body. Death doesn’t end her sexual allure, and the ending doesn’t resolve anything for its audience. Instead, Ana remains a question.
Yet, there is something that draws a viewer back to Amer again and again, and it isn’t just that it looks pretty. Ana doesn’t speak, or she speaks very sparsely, communicating instead with nervous fidgeting and a troubled expression that rarely breaks. Each of the actors portraying her feels very much in conversation with the next. Without going out of its way to characterize Ana outside of the horror of her life, it’s easy to view her as a fully fleshed-out person in a way that giallo generally struggles with. Her intense sexual impulses are shown in close-ups, even sometimes in uncomfortable detail, and it creates a creeping sense of horror that is difficult to shake.
Though the directors’ following films, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and Let the Corpses Tan (2017) create slightly more lush narratives and have garnered greater overall attention, Amer remains a stunning debut and a startling look into the inner world of one exceptionally doomed young woman and her subverted sexual urges that become, over time, monstrous in their own right. Though much of its story is told via imagery and metaphor, that only heightens the distress and the unexpressed isolation of our protagonist-turned-antagonist-turned-victim. At different turns artistic, sexy, violent, and unsettling, Amer is the kind of film that has to be experienced to be believed, but it remains an underrated masterpiece. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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