It seems like a fairly natural impulse for artists to want to pay homage to the masters that most influenced them, finding their way back, sooner or later, to the works that shaped their aesthetic sense. Hell, Quentin Tarantino has made a whole career out twisting his favorite film moments to his own ends, but repurposing iconic styles and imagery also comes along with a great deal of risk, since you’re basically inviting comparisons to already canonized material, ones that will usually find you wanting even if you somehow manage to live up the spirit of the original. Take the 2009 French feature Amer, which channels the look and feel of classic Italian giallo with loving detail, but no matter how pleasurable the visuals are to devotees of Dario Argento or Mario Bava, there’s no getting around the fact that its style is secondhand, and there’s little substance underneath it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the filmmakers, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, are quick to discourage the idea that Amer, their debut feature, and what followed is mere tribute to the Italian horror and suspense films that it apes so faithfully, with Forzani claiming it’s “Definitely not homage. It’s more that we reinterpret and re-use the giallo language to tell our story.” To be fair, Amer does bring the style to bear on what’s really more of a carnal melodrama despite being marketed as a gruesome thriller, the only problem being that the story, told in three parts and with minimal dialogue, is razor thin, following the sexual awakening of Ana, from her macabre childhood imaginings through to puberty, where she first encounters the relentless male gaze that will later drive her to violent extremes in a plainly telegraphed “twist” ending, but without much to say, literally or figuratively, about what she’s experiencing.
But if the narrative, even for its mildly experimental leanings, isn’t exactly interesting enough to carry it all the way through its 90-minute runtime, the film is at least visually appealing throughout (a few too many extreme close-ups aside), borrowing liberally from Argento in particular, the colorful, expressionistic lighting of Suspiria informing its most memorable moments and the kind of decrepit, trauma-filled childhood home found in Deep Red and others lending a vivid backdrop later on. In true giallo style, the film was made on a shoestring budget, so every shot was carefully composed and rehearsed not only in the interest of making the film better but cheaper as well, cutting down on film and time costs once shooting started in earnest. Also typical for the genre, there was little sound recorded on set, but instead of dubbed dialogue, the audio is mostly breathless gasps, either of ecstasy or fear.
That sound design is occasionally very effective, especially when working in conjunction with the sometimes erotically rhythmic editing, but it’s also a real missed opportunity since, even as Amer quotes existing soundtracks from the likes of Ennio Morricone for its infrequent musical cues, there’s no badass, Goblin-eque score to give a beating human heart to all the unbearable tension and unspoken desires. That’s in turn indicative of the larger issue plaguing the movie, mainly that, even though it takes a few awkward stabs at adding some wit into the mix, the filmmakers play almost everything with far too straight a face, presenting this insanely referential work with a wholly unearned self-seriousness, which doesn’t do the complex yet shallowly explored subject matter any favors. It’s fine to pay homage, even to swipe, borrow and steal, especially when it looks this good, but there’s no need to be so stuffy about it.