Fans of Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento understand that part of appreciating his singularly ornate and operatic visual setpieces is tolerating the stretches where characters explain, at great length and in dubious accent, what’s causing all that mayhem. An extended homage to Argento, Mario Bava, and other practitioners of the genre, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s transfixing semi-experimental feature Amer seeks to strip all that exposition away and limit the focus exclusively to sound and image. There’s probably a page or two’s worth of dialogue in the script, and even that is clipped or deliberately obscured, never coalescing in anything that could ever be described as a conversation. What’s left is, unsurprisingly, abstract and hard to comprehend, but also staggeringly beautiful, an assemblage of suggestive images and sounds that carry the violence, sensuality, and terror of giallo without being explicit about what they mean.
Amer unfolds over three parts, though the sections bleed into each other, with no obvious lines of demarcation. Each follows a haunted protagonist named Ana through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, using a different actress for each part. In a creepy seaside mansion, the young Ana experiences various traumas, supernatural or otherwise: A mysterious figure in a black veil, the sight of her parents having vigorous sex, a dead grandparent animated by the opening of a pocket watch. These impressions carry over into her teenage and adult years, when her body matures and she faces the twin menaces of desire and death, whether it’s the leers of men in the local village or the aggressions of some unseen, unknowable, unstoppable force.
Cattet and Forzani aren’t interested in sketching a real character out of Ana, nor are they terribly concerned about making sense of the frightening universe she inhabits. Amer instead asks viewers to make what they will of these abstractions, which all have the hallmarks of giallo: The voyeurism and sensuality, the torrents of blood, the intimations of madness, the presence of evil forces from within and without. Cattet and Forzani focus especially on the eyes, as they peer through keyholes, widen in terror, contract in hostility, and observe private moments and secret worlds. Amer may resist easy comprehension, but it’s enormously seductive as pure cinema, each shot a marvel of composition and technique, set to a multi-layered soundtrack that lifts scores from ’70s giallo films. For fans of the genre, it’s a fetishistic delight.
Key features: A great package includes five short films (with introductory notes) Cattet and Forzani made to prepare for Amer, each one another building block. The last one, 2006’s “Santos Palace,” is naturally the best-produced and most complete vision, and an excellent dry run. Two arrested trailers and a teaser round out the features.