Interview: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Makers of Amer

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Published:  June 28, 2010
Interview: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Makers of Amer

The giallo genre gained notoriety as a grisly staple of the Italian cinema of the 1970s. The lurid, sexually audacious psychological thrillers of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci matched daring feats of aesthetic bravado and technical dexterity with the plot conventions of procedural whodunits to initiate a genre remarkable for its unflinching dedication to extremity. It’s an extremity not just of cinematographic technique and thematic philosophy (especially where women and sex are concerned), but an extremity of explicitly sanguineous imagery. Even in today’s desensitised market, where the repugnant Saw franchise has become an indefatigable box-office champion, it’s the elaborately-mounted sequences of extravagant bloodletting for which the classic gialli remain infamous. At their best — that is, their most outlandishly unhinged — these prolonged scenes of corporeal trauma achieve a nightmarish sublimity by the very intensity of their savagery.

It’s this heady cocktail of style, method and subject that holds fascination for French filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Their trance-like “neo-giallo” Amer is a fragmentary exploration of female sexual awakening as glimpsed through a prism of traditional giallo convention. It’s one of my favourite films of 2010, so I was very thankful when the pair found time to respond to an email interview. Enjoy.

All Images Copyright Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani

All Images Copyright Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani

“Amer” means “bitter” in French, which makes it an intriguing namesake for a film as provocative and deliberately crafted as yours. Can you explain the choice of title?
The film is a sensorial movie. Taste is one of the five senses and “bitter” is the taste that the character has at the end of her life (but not at the end of the film!).

Then in French, “amer” sounds like “la mère” (which means “the mother”), which is one of the main characters in the movie. It also sounds like “la mer” (“the sea”), which is one of the main elements of the film. In the same way, the movie can have several meanings depending the way you look at it.

You’re both clearly great lovers of the gialli that Italian directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci were producing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. What is it about such a niche and culturally-specific subgenre that struck you as being ripe for revisiting today?
Before making Amer, we had made five short films with no money which were shot in our apartment with four friends. They are all experiments around giallo. We have always tried to develop intimate subjects through giallo’s universe and its cinematographic language. For us, giallo was a unique kind of cinema which mixed entertainment and experiment. Even if it was exploitation movies, there was a kind of free spirit at work which gave us incredible sequences via their directing and excesses. It’s that spirit that we love and which gives us the faith to make movies!

The film is a French-Belgian production – surely that’s a first for a giallo film? How difficult was it to get Amer in front of cameras? Has the finished product been a hard film to sell?
It was quite hard to finance the film. We wanted to make a feature which finalised the work we have made with our short films across six years. We didn’t want to make compromises. Otherwise, what is the point of making shorts if you have to abandon your universe when you make a feature?

We started the project with our Belgian producer, Eve Commenge, who created her company to produce Amer. Then we had to go looking for a French co-producer because we couldn’t do the project with just Belgian money. We met François Cognard, the French co-producer.

At the end of the financial research we only found a third of the original budget. As we were used to making films without money, the producers trusted us to go ahead anyway.

Now we are very happy. The film has a beautiful life: it’s travelling a lot in festivals and it’s already sold in North America for a theatrical release in October 2010 and a DVD release in the UK and Germany.

AMER 4

As cultural outsiders to the genre, were you determined to bring something fresh to the equation, or did you initially set out to make as authentic a traditional giallo as possible?
Our goal was not to make a fan tribute and copy exactly what giallo should be. We have chosen our favourite elements and played with them to develop a personal subject. Our approach is a bit the same as the “assassino” character in gialli — the “fetishist” — who focusses on particular aspects of his victim! One of the aspects we focus on is the giallo’s iconography, with its incredible shots and its cinematography.

There is maybe something nostalgic in the atmosphere of the film because Bruno comes from the south of France at the French/Italian border where some gialli were shot in the 70s. They have the same settings as the super 8mm family films that Bruno’s parents shot at the same time. That’s why we wanted to shoot Amer there: to rebuild that universe of Bruno’s childhood region that has totally changed today.

The film is divided into three very distinct acts, each depicting the formative stages in the troubled erotic life of the protagonist, Ana. The fragmentary structure – along with the sparing use of dialogue – really bolsters the abstract, hallucinatory nature of the film. How difficult is it to write a film like Amer, where the bulk of the effort comes down to the shoot and the edit, and only so much can be conveyed on the page?
We wanted to tell the story not with words but with the audio-visual language. It was important to drive the story of Ana in a visceral way to communicate her sexual awaking through the sensations because, for us, it’s the better way to express that subject. And the construction of the story in three parts — like a kind of “sketches film” construction — permits us to drive the story only in a cinematographic way. But the script was essentially all cold, technical description and no one is used to reading that kind of script. That’s why it was so difficult to find financers!

The film is so meticulously crafted – in terms of both its visual and sound design – it could easily be mistaken as a genuine artefact from the past. Can you share a little about how the film was produced?
The film was shot on the Riviera — both the French and Italian sides — and in Belgium, too. It took thirty-nine days to shoot.

We made nine hundred shots and there are 2200 cuts in the film. We made HUGE preparations because we didn’t have the luxury to doubt during the shooting — there was not a lot of money, and a lot of shots to make a day. So we tested all the storyboards with a DV-cam and tested all the camera settings before the shoot. We shot the total film with the two of us acting all the characters! So nothing was unexpected.

All the sound has been recreated in post-production. We didn’t take sound recording during the shooting, except for the sequences with dialogue. It’s a way of working that we have learnt on our first shorts which were shot on still frame cameras, which made it impossible to record the sound during the shooting!

AMER 3

What was it about the concept of erotic awareness that you thought lent itself to the giallo style?
We wanted to do something metaphoric about this intense experience of sexual awakening, discoveries of body and desire, and to make an intimate portrait of a girl with her fears and desires. And what could be more appropriate to talk about “fear and desire” than giallo’s iconography?

Gialli are often accused of being misogynistic and perpetuating damaging representations of female sexuality, particularly where the correlation between lust and extreme violence is concerned. Have you encountered any resistance to the film as an upshot of this? Did this shape the way you developed Amer?

No, we never encountered any resistance about that. The film is about a girl who is tortured by her erotic universe. It’s an intimate subject which has nothing to do with a moral or anything.

We thought we may have problem appealing to macho guys because in Amer we reverse the traditional giallo situation: here it’s the man who is an object of desire or of fantasy. We are presenting a feminine point of view. But for the moment we have had no complaints about that!

Amer eschews an original score in favour of using old soundtrack cues from giallo composers such as Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai. Did you consider soliciting a new score for the film, or did you decide to use old favourites early on?
We are soundtrack collectors and we were listening to those scores when we were writing the script at home, so they inspired us. At the end we couldn’t imagine the sequences without them! It was funny to re-use the music far from its original context and to change its meaning. (For instance, picking a poliziottesco [Italian crime movie centred on a typically male “tough cop” character] tune to demonstrate the intimacy of a young girl).

You two are a couple. What’s it like immersing yourself in a project that deals so darkly with notions of sexual awakening, titillation, desire and dread with the person you love? Could either of you have made this film with anyone else?
It’s because we are a couple that we can work together. It would have been impossible to make the film with someone else. We trust in each other and we can speak honestly about intimate things. That’s why we can collaborate.

AMER 1

How have audiences – many of whom might never have seen an original giallo – been responding to Amer?
As we drive the film in a cinematographic way — there is no explicative dialogue — the images can keep a rich polysemic value and offer different levels of reading. That creates a very unique relationship between the film and the spectator. The audience has to take their place in the movie by this open way of seeing the film. It’s a personal experience each time.

But in general, we can say that the audience who knows giallo movies is more focussed on how we have used giallo iconography, while the audience who doesn’t know them is more focused on the subject of the film.

How can people see Amer? Any word on a possible Australian release?
We know that there are negotiations with Australian distributors. But we don’t know more than that for the moment.

Finally, what’s next for you both? Are you done with giallo, or do you intend to experiment further with the genre?
With our next feature, we want to explore the detective aspect of the giallo, but still with our “introspective universe.” And from a male point of view this time!

Learn more about Amer at the film’s official website.

2 Responses

  1. jane.kay

    please can this come to australia – i’ve heard so much about it. great interview!

  2. Thanks Jane. I hope the film makes its way to our shores soon too. I saw it in New York earlier this year as part of the MoMA’s ‘New Directors, New Films’ programme and was very impressed. If you’re a giallo enthusiast, it will prove right up your alley. Might have to settle for an import of that UK DVD for the immediate future, however!

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