“Love, art thou sweet? then bitter death must be;
Love, thou art bitter; sweet is death to me.
O Love, if death be sweeter, let me die.” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson
As a major motion picture, Amer is a sensory experience that often goes misunderstood. Hypnotic and atmospheric, the film borrows the artful cheesiness of 1970s Italian giallos and up-styles it, modernizing the genre seemingly outside the comprehension of giallo nerds across the board. “This tedious exercise in abstraction by Belgian filmmakers Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani,” begins The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the film from 2010, “well apes the visual stylization of such filmmakers as Mario Bava and Dario Argento without bothering to provide anything equivalent in terms of theme or content.” The accusation of Amer failing to sustain interest by giallo fanboys only reveals their refusal to understand what the film accomplishes. Amer is a presentation of both fear and desire, and an intricate look at how those two primal emotions intertwine. Sure, it is a “slow” film without much dialogue, but it is also rich and fulfilling in that absence, going far beyond the Italian trope of helpless, emotionally tormented women meeting their doom by a disembodied pair of gloved hands.
Amer’s deliberation is the basis of what makes it so unique. “Amer” is the French word for “bitter,” so naturally we are meant to find certain aspects of the film distressing. But the aim here is to challenge, a plea by the filmmakers for us to confront desires that might make us uncomfortable. The film is packed with alarming imagery meant to titillate: shots of a little girl’s knees becoming bloodied by rock salt, the teeth of a comb raking across someone’s mouth, and an olde tyme shaving blade screechingly dragged across someone’s teeth. We see close-ups of creepy natural world occurrences like an ant crawling in and out of someone’s navel and a spider tangled in someone’s hair, and thick, mucous-like tree sap covering someone’s hand. In addition to those shocks, gravely disturbing images help us ponder the film’s themes and meaning: several scenes feature an elderly man’s corpse (both stiff and reanimated), remnants of possible witchcraft, and traditional giallo-style bloody bits. A representation of puberty as violently flickering obscured images is also added in, as well as a final scene set inside a morgue. All these brutally antagonistic pictures are important because they set up where the film gradually takes us: a place where love is skewed, sex is manipulative, and not only is death sweet–it’s a chance for rebirth.
Amer is an amazing study in “Weird Boners.” We can attribute that to its virtual Rolodex of fetishism: ASMR, S&M, leering, threat of rape, oral fixation, “the nubile young woman,” MILFs, even urination as a “release.” Amer doesn’t spend any time explaining these fetishes, nor does it spend much time gratuitously enacting them. Never are any of these kinks presented as explicitly naughty indulgences; rather they are presented as ordinary activities we might find in our day-to-day. The trick is whether or not we feel unambiguously perverted as some of these things pass through our routines, or if we find them to just be kind of normal. The film’s slow, atmospheric build is tied to this question of perversion: when we are intrigued by the eroticism in everyday occurrences without letting ourselves overindulge in that eroticism, we are perhaps unknowingly engaging in a practice colloquially referred to as “edging.” Amer is, at its best, a long-form erotic tease. When we discover the excitement that comes from ordinary things, sensations are heightened because we are in anticipation. As an adult, our protagonist Ana places her fingers between layers of peeling wallpaper; she is curious and takes in the textures, but we are anxious with anticipation in this unremarkable motion. What will Ana discover? we ask, and when the answer is “nothing,” we’re still satisfied. Not only that, but we want more. We begin to crave what will happen next as the film slowly but steadily “edges” us into its version of bliss.
Now with our not-so-secret desires on display, we can logically consider the connection between sex drive and death drive. This connection goes back to the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud is typically the mind to which we attribute the concept of the death drive (laid out in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”), however, the ideas of such had been written about briefly in 1912 in the essay “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being” by critical thinker Sabina Spielrein. In the essay, she notes some of the inspiration also comes from the work of another intellectual contemporary (and, lesser to the point, her one-time boyfriend), Carl Jung. In “Destruction,” Spielrein writes of “an unknown fear lying within erotic activity” and the anxiety of “[an] enemy [that] is within; its characteristic ardour compels you, with inflexible urgency, to do what you do not want to do…you vainly may attempt to flee to an uncertain future.” She goes on to describe sexual instincts as “destructive-reconstructive events,” drawing a link to Jung’s ideas in his work “Psychology of the Unconscious” that “Whoever relinquishes experiencing a risky undertaking must stifle an erotic wish, committing a form of self-murder,” and “death fantasies…often accompany the renunciation of the erotic wish.” Our death drive is essentially a masochistic urge to replay traumatic events to receive pleasure from them, in some instances replacing our erotic desires with more disturbing or macabre experiences.
So it’s no wonder we sometimes refer to an orgasm as “the little death” (in French: “le petite mort”). Amer shows us the spiritual release often associated with this phrasing when the adult Ana stifles the life from an intruder and he dispenses his final breath in a noticeably orgasmic sigh. Dime-store psychoanalysis of Ana’s character will assign the source of her hidden derangement to her childhood confrontation with her grandfather’s death paired with more or less accidentally witnessing her parents gratify themselves in heavy coitus. Her shocking exposure to both sex and death at such an early age undoubtedly affected her throughout the different stages of her life, and with each stage, she must have handled the challenges of those memories in increasingly awkward ways. The middle section of the film presents Ana as a young woman having undergone puberty but not yet understanding the power granted to her by it. She seems to know something is there for her to harness, but she is just discovering her capacity for it. The nubile Ana is learning how to tease, which no doubt is erotically exciting for her. Her interest is piqued when she notices men leer at her—even if that interest is only in passing; she walks towards a biker gang full of cute, tough young adult boys without giving too much thought to what they may do with (or to) her. Or maybe she does think about it but enjoys the danger? Either way, the threat of a worst-case scenario drives her curiosity: a burgeoning appetite leading to the inevitable.
The final section of the film is adult Ana going back to her family’s country home to perhaps confront the horrors of her childhood and the emotional distress laid upon her by her mother. This is when we learn Ana has apparently become psychotic (Spielrein would likely refer to her as “a neurotic”), and we have a difficult time distinguishing her reality from what may be a hallucinatory fantasy. In this sequence, Ana is paranoid for a reason unclear to us and perceives her taxi driver as a threat. He’s innocent, but never mind that because she’s decided she needs to murder him in the cruelest giallo-like fashion: slitting his face and eyeballs to pieces with a straight razor. Almost directly, a new threat appears: a shadowy, hooded figure who stalks Ana all over the Italian country mansion’s grounds. This figure could be a delusional hallucination, a now corporeal representation of the anxiety her mother instilled within her (see: masochistic replay of traumatic events), or could simply be a trick of her mind. We’ll go with what this figure represents in the film, though, and not to Ana personally: it’s an amalgam of the depths of weirdness she’s experienced that has driven her throughout the stages of her life, and now this hooded boogeyman has come to catch up with her. She is understandably afraid; she runs frantically, but ultimately cannot escape, succumbing to the demise of her being.
However, that’s not the last thing Amer has to say about death. Taking a cue from Spielrein’s “destructive-reconstructive events” passage, during the film’s closing seconds as Ana is lying dead on a coroner’s table, we can see subtle changes to her coloring begin to happen. Her chest, shoulders, and face very smoothly go from pale to slightly less pale, to faintly reminiscent of her normal olive skin tone. Then, suddenly before the frame cuts to roll the credits, we catch a brief glimpse of Ana’s eyes opening. The question is raised: if we all are masochists deriving neurotic sexual pleasure and emotional regeneration from trauma, wanting death by way of being instinctually driven to the principles of it, then why are we ultimately afraid of facing it?
There’s not really an answer that Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani can provide. But with Amer, we are at least given an exercise in which to contemplate our relationships not only with sex but also with death. Amer is a giallo that doesn’t just say “sexy ladies die,” it gives us more to chew on when considering why they have to die–and that reasoning doesn’t have to be strictly plot- or dialogue-based. Amer clearly possesses more substance and displays more psychological intrigue than a brunt of genre critics are willing to admit. So let’s face it: without room for psychological study, giallos aren’t much more than just fancy slashers. Fortunately, we have Amer to take us beyond that. ★
Eager for more Weird Boners? Check out this piece on Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World!