That is not to say that I loved it. I think that will only be determined after I see it a few more times. But man, oh man, is it one to admire. I long for a second screening, grateful I was able to catch it the first time in the right place -- a packed-house theater with grown men shrieking behind me, and big, bad, rattling and bellowing speakers.
Horror from Belgium, Amer instantly brought to mind two reference points that might be helpful for anyone deciding whether or not to see it.
The first is Kill Bill, which is actually more gruesome and bloodthirsty with its enjoyment of arms and heads cut off and flying through the air, drenching anything close by in the red of its blood. Amer has nothing like those barbaric scenes, although in quick instances it comes close. Where Amer is similar to Tarantino's revenge epic is in its rapid eye edits, its intensely cut visuals which are fascinating as they flicker by, and in its use of unnatural and amplified sound, an incredibly eclectic audio design. When Uma Thurman spins her head or pulls out a sword in Kill Bill, the exaggerated sound effects hail back to early Bruce Lee and 70s Kung Fu flicks; in Amer, when an eye blinks or a corpse is present, or when the victim is struggling in the clutches of her killer, the sound hails back to retro horror, mostly gialli, which the visual stylings reference, too.
The second film that so quickly springs to mind is Ti West's The House of the Devil, a guilty pleasure of mine from last year. That film paid homage to earlier horror classics in its creepy Halloween-like score, its babysitter left alone in a large house, and Satanism lurking in the back of the script. It was set in the mid-80s and built as if it were made then, using cameras from the era and edited in the exact same fashion as those slasher flicks you saw on HBO as a teen. It's the retro-chic, throwback feel that is similar to Amer, and if you've ever enjoyed a film by Dario Argento, you're destined to love Amer.
The plot is so fucked over it is impossible to coherently describe. If it has more than fifteen lines of dialogue, well, I'll eat my hat. This is a film based strictly on sight and sound. It lives by it and dies by it, and to decipher its plot is somewhat meaningless.
But I can try.
Like the panels in a triptych, the film shows three moments in the life of heroine Ana. (Anton Bitel in his Sight & Sound review wonderfully notes that her three-lettered palindromic name reflects the film's "tripartite cyclical structure.") Each Ana is played by a different actress: Cassandra Forêt as Ana enfant, a scared innocent, perhaps aged eight or nine; hottie Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud as Ana adolescente, mid-teen and ready to sexually burst and challenge (perhaps replace) the old bag mom; and the captivating Marie Bos as Ana Adule, repressed and reacting to everything the first two Ana's have already seen.
Not since Un Chien Andalou in 1929 has an eye been so fearfully relayed. (And I just realized that Buñuel's startling plot-less short could be another apt reference for Amer.)
After the death of her grandfather, his corpse laid out downstairs, Ana enfant locks herself away in her room, constantly covering the keyhole through which the family housemaid, supposed a witch, gazes in with one ugly eye. Ana eventually grazes downstairs, curious about the corpse, and takes a watch from her grandfather's hand. She breaks off a finger in the process. His eyes open, the housemaid witch reemerges, and Ana is wrapped up in her black shawl, which we see through her eyes.
Ana adolescente walks into town with her mom. Her burgeoning sexuality is pitted against the fact that her once beautiful mother needs to get the gray out. She is heading in to get her hair dyed. As Ana waits outside with a schoolboy she's too mature for, she wanders from the salon and notices a biker gang outside. She walks provocatively in front of them, her thoughts racing with a rebel teenage eros. Her mom tracks her down and gives her a biting little slap on the face. We're never certain whether her mom is being protective or jealous. The two make their way back home.
Ana Adule returns years later to the villa where all this began. The home is dilapidated now, no one has been here or lived here for years. Ana fantasizes about the taxi driver who drives her there and some locals that take her boxes outside the home's gates. The film from this place completely explodes. One, perhaps two killers are stalking Ana, and at least one will kill her by the film's end.
The film is sexually provocative, but unlike much of contemporary horror, not a whole lot of skin is shown. You might find it here or there, but it doesn't need to be shown. It's embedded into the psyche of every element.
In moments along the way, one tone of pure color stands out and is nearly blinding. Red, green, and blue are predominant, and when they're used they seem to go on for minutes at a time. I cannot describe the creepiness of these scenes, nor can I describe the alarming mood of the sound. Like Lynch at his best, Amer influences mostly through suggestion. You're on the edge of your seat and don't always know why. Then, like Rob Zombie -- but for only seconds at a time -- you are fully introduced to the spectrum of horror that abounds.
The film is excessive, over the top, overflowing with references to Italian horror, and writhing as if possessed with atonal image and sound. It is not for the faint of heart, but not prone to the gore of, say, Suspiria. There are moments that it's all just too much to take in, and I'd be open to those who said their mind began to wander.
But it is moody more than anything, and the mood is salient terror, with a suspense that builds to a tragic climax which leaves you desirous to experience it again.