I first saw Amer at a preview screening, two weeks before it made its bow as part of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Midnight Adrenaline series, and it aroused some heated conversation amongst the critics and writers in attendance. Everyone acknowledged the film’s beauty and technical brilliance; many dismissed its free-form disregard for stick-to-your-ribs narrative as all-style-no-substance. But the movie haunted me like the darkest and richest of dreams. I had to see it again.
The second time around (at its midnight screening), I fell wholeheartedly in love.
Amer, on its surface, pays homage to the horror sub-genre known as the giallo. Born in Italy in the mid-sixties, the gialli were essentially highly-stylized slasher films; visually sumptuous thrillers in which a shadowy killer dispatched (usually female) victims in creatively-staged, near-balletic death scenes.
In addition to the violence, the gialli were marked by intense eroticism (which, at its most extreme points, veered into misogyny), immaculately stylish art direction, surreal plot twists, and a paranoid, dream-like point of view.
More conventional slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th supplanted the giallo in the late seventies and throughout the eighties, but the sub-genre’s influence resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1990s. If you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, or any one of several serial killer flicks of the last fifteen years, you’ve essentially seen a glossier, Americanized version of the giallo.
Calling Amer a giallo, however, is like calling Inglourious Basterds a war flick. Elements of pastiche do surface–most notably in the use of 1970s-vintage music cues from giallo-versed composers like Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, and the decidedly post-psychedelic color scheme. But Belgium-based directors Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet have distilled everything primal and effective about the giallo genre into the purest sensory experience I’ve had at a film in a long time.
Amer follows a woman through three phases of her life–childhood, adolescence, and adulthood–as she gradually awakens sexually; and it immerses the viewer fully in that journey with rich primary colors, tight exploratory close-ups, an incredibly enveloping sound mix (all done post-production) and an erotic undercurrent that never feels cheap or misogynistic. Like Quentin Tarantino, Forzani and Cattet have sculpted a shopworn film genre into something new, exciting, and much more than the sum of its parts.
During our conversation, Amer‘s co-directors demonstrate the same synergy in the outside world as they likely did on-set, frequently finishing each other’s sentences and waxing eloquent on contrasting aspects of their personalities and artistic visions. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could’ve talked to them for hours–a fact hammered home when Forzani briefly geeked out on the genre he and Cattet have mined so creatively.
What was the initial inspiration behind Amer’s creation?
Bruno Forzani: The beginning was the subject; to talk about the discovery of desire, and sensuality and sexuality; and the best language in which to talk about that was the giallo language. Inside the giallo and the subtext you have all of the iconography and the cinematography that eroticizes the body. So the first thing was the subject, and the approach was the giallo.
Helene Cattet: We have made five short films together, and it’s always the same approach: We treat personal subjects through the language of giallo, the giallo universe.
One thing I very much admired about Amer is that–while it pays homage to the giallo formula–it boils down everything that is giallo into the purest sensory language; so there aren’t a lot of the silly sub-plots–the detectives, the comic relief–or the misogyny that sometimes surface in the genre. Was that by design?
B: Yes. The first thing was not to pay tribute to the giallo, but to talk about the subject; to just keep some aspects of the giallo; as you said, the sensory aspects of the giallo. We just kept what was interesting for our subject. So it’s a very subjective point of view on the giallo: We have picked what we love in that genre, and so maybe for people who admire Amer, it’s not necessary to be a fan of the genre.
As a directorial team, how was the work distributed? Did you each direct one segment, or did you both jointly direct all of the segments?
H: In fact, there was really no distribution [laughs]! We always do everything together, both of us. And in fact we have to prepare a lot together. We fight a lot during the preparation, and during the writing, too…. But I felt that this did work, the preparation, because we work well together, and we can work with the crew.
I ask because the film has such definite divisions between the three segments: And I was wondering if one person had done any more or less. But it sounds like it was pretty much equal.
H: That’s true. But we wanted to have a very different universe for each of the three parts.
The one thing that does unite the three parts, aside from the overall theme of sexual discovery, is the very lush color scheme. It was very apparent to me that–without imitating–you were definitely inspired by the look of films like Suspiria and Tenebrae–very bright, vivid hues are used to convey a lot of the emotion. Did you show some of these films to your crew or cinematographer as inspiration or instruction?
H: We tried to show them many films [laughs]!
B: We wanted to show to the DP ‘The Drop of Water’ from Black Sabbath…
I was going to comment on how the first segment was reminiscent of Mario Bava’s work…
B:…And Suspiria, for the colors. But, in fact, he didn’t watch them [laughs]! He’s more fond of things like Tony Scott than he is of giallo, or Italian cinema. But as we made four short films together, we have learned to work well as collaborators. We discovered monochramatic lighting through making our short films, so Amer wasn’t the first time we worked with this DP.
The locations were beautiful. Where was it shot?
H: In the South of France; at the border between France and Italy. In fact, it was in the city where Bruno [grew up]…
B: …The city where I was little. It’s on the Riviera. In fact, when I watched gialli it reminded me of my childhood because I was trained in the seventies; and some of the gialli and the B-movies of Italy were shot in the region. So it always reminds me of when I was little. The way the women were dressed, and the color scheme, and things like that…and so I wanted to make something in this original area.
The house is just nearby the apartment where I Iived when I was a child. And it scared me when I was a teenager, because it reminded me of the house in Dario Argento’s Deep Red. And when we had this project, to make Amer, I showed Helene the house when she came on vacation, and we wanted absolutely to shoot in this house because it is one of the last houses that still exists from that time in the seventies.
Has it been destroyed since filming?
B: No, but I think it may be soon, because it’s been 25 years since it’s been occupied.
Tell me a bit about your background in filmmaking. How did the two of you get started, and how did the two of you team up?
B: Ten years ago when we became a couple; one month after, we decided to do a short film together. It was like that. One weekend, there was a contest for a movie. And the film we made [for that contest] has been showed at several fantasy film festivals. Then we did another, and another…
H: We wanted to make cinema because Bruno is a big cinephile, and I was trying to find a way to express myself. I like to experiment, and to mix different things together to find a good way to express my ideas. That’s why we like to work together; because we like to use cinematographic elements to express ourselves.
B: Giallo was the common point to mix our two universes, because there is entertainment and experimentalism. Me, I was the B-Movie fan, and Helene was the more experimental.
I was also very intrigued by your choices of actresses to play Ana. The actress who plays her in the final third of the film [Marie Bos] doesn’t look like Edwige Fenech, or your typical giallo female; she looks like a normal young woman. Did you intend to cast someone outside the genre norm for the role?
B: Well, there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie, so each time we met an actress, we were looking for someone that has an intimate universe–very strong, so that when you see them, you can feel something going through their faces, their eyes, without them saying anything. So each time, we chose the child, the teenager, and the adult like that. So it was…
H: …that personal universe; that was most important.
Much of the film–especially the first segment–feels like a dark fairy tale. The first portion captures a child’s-eye view very well. Were there any influences besides giallo in the look of the first portion of the movie?
B: There were two things. The first thing was to refine that universe where you’re little, and you believe in supernatural things. The second one was ‘The Drop of Water’ because we wanted to make a gothic film out of her childhood. People say that [horror films] are fairy tales for adults. Dario Argento wanted to, I think, shoot Suspiria with little girls. And so we have chosen the genre to talk about childhood, and the whole fairy tale aspect.
There is a level of ambiguity to the first third of the film. You can interpret it as something supernatural, or as something that’s going on in the mind of the child.
B: It was like free jazz, because the fantastic aspect of the story comes from the subconscious.
I’ve seen the picture with others, and it seems to me that the middle portion, which is very languid, arouses the most controversy. With giallo, I think fans expect shock and instant gratification.
H: It was the first portion we wrote, and we wanted to have a real contrast with the other universe, because for the teenager we wanted something very open…
B: …where you can breathe. The first portion is very oppressive.
H: For us, it was important…to have erotic tension for this [segment]; not fantastic tension, or suspense tension like the other parts. More like a Japanese movie of the sixties, but with the look of a giallo.
H: The design is like that; the colors.
B: With the landscape, we tried to find natural colors that were very flashy, with the art, the sea, the shades of blue…
H: So we wanted another type of tension; somewhere where you could breathe.
B: We knew when we had written the script that this part would be a surprise for genre hardcore fans. Not typical, but a real surprise.
What is next for you? Are you working on another feature?
B: Yeah. We’re working, at the moment, on a second one. It would still be in the giallo universe, but we will pick up other aspects of the genre. It will be more a male point of view. And we shot in Brazil this time. We’re working on it at the moment.
The film is very carefully crafted. Was there anything that you were forced to leave out of the movie due to length or content considerations?
B: No. There were maybe six shots that we couldn’t shoot in the taxi sequence. We didn’t have time, and it was a very closed space.
H: It was the most difficult thing to shoot.
What you’ve done with Amer, I think, is spiritually akin to what Quentin Tarantino does; which is to take a very established genre and completely give it a new life…
B: Thank you! We’re happy that the film is showing in the USA, and that it will be released in theaters and on DVD here. Here you have more culture and appreciation for this kind of cinema. I think fans of European B-movies can appreciate it.