Upcoming Belgian neo-giallo Amer ('Bitter') has been causing quite a stir on the festival circuit of late. Filmmakers Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet have concocted a heady and mesmerizing brew that harks back to the dazzling and uber-stylised Italian gialli of the Seventies. Forzani and Cattet have set about recreating all the familiar motifs, visual codes, stylistic traits and clichés from the blood drenched and lurid archives of the giallo film. Classic gialli such as Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and All the Colours of the Dark are paid tribute to in a virtually dialogue free story revolving around the concepts of obsession, sexual desire, psychological trauma and murder. All this unfolds in a visual feast backed by recycled Italian soundtracks to create a stunning and haunting mood-piece that will sear itself onto your retina and into your nightmares long after its provocative array of images have finished strutting across the screen. The filmmakers describe the film as:
‘Three key moments, all of them sensual, define Ana's life. Her carnal search sways between reality and coloured fantasies ... becoming more and more oppressive. A black laced hand prevents her from screaming. The wind lifts her dress and caresses her thighs. A razor blade brushes her skin: where will this chaotic and carnivorous journey leave her?’
I thought it high time I caught up with the delectable duo behind Amer to talk about their darkly seductive and bloody opus, the influence of Dario Argento and why the iconography of vintage gialli lends itself so well to conveying a tale of violent sexual awakening… I even donned black leather gloves for the occasion.
Can you tell me how the idea for Amer came to fruition?
Bruno Forzani: Hélène had read a book called 'Le bal' by Irène Nemirovsky. At one moment in this a mother slaps her child, a little girl. This idea was mixed with a scene from a Pinku Eiga by Masaru Konuma - though I don’t recall the title - where a woman walks between Yakuzas. The result was the idea of the film: the story of a girl at three moments of her life where she discovers 'Body' and 'Desire'.
What was the writing process of the film for you? Did the script change at all as you filmed it?
Bruno: Hélène had the main idea, the concept. I developed it, then she read the draft and reworked it, and I reworked it again, etc. It took us a year and a half! After that the script didn’t change at all, the film turned out exactly the way we wrote it, except for the opening titles because we didn't have enough money.
You’ve both worked together before on a couple of short films. How did your collaborative partnership come about?
Bruno: In fact, one month after we became lovers, we started to make short films together! If we hadn’t been in love, it would have never been possible to work together; it’s a matter of confidence. We had two different backgrounds and giallo was the cinema which permitted us to do movies together because it unifies two kind of cinema: entertainment and experimental. So you can find a real search in the cinematographic language!
Gialli haven’t really been in vogue for some time – and were usually only exclusive to Italian cinema. Why chose now to make Amer with its specific influences? What inspired you to revisit the themes and styles of the Italian gialli?
Bruno: For me, gialli from the 70’s are very nostalgic. I grew up at the French/Italian border in South of France and the settings of my childhood are the same as the ones in many giallo films. When I was a little boy, the French Riviera was full of Mrs. Wardhs! So when I watch these films now there is the same atmosphere in the Super 8mm films shot by my parents!
Hélène Cattet: To tell Ana’s story, her discovery and quest of sexuality, we chose the iconography and cinematographic language of the giallo because it’s the best genre to talk about body, desire, sexual tension, etc.
Italian gialli have frequently been criticised and accused of being misogynistic. Hélène, as a woman, do you feel gialli are misogynistic? How did you feel when writing and directing this material?
Hélène: Some of them are misogynistic, but in general it’s true that only men have directed gialli. I thought it was time to have a female point of view on it! In gialli, I like the feminine characters such as Miss Wardh or Florinda Bolkan in Lizard in a Woman's Skin, who have a tortured intimate-erotic universe and we have reused that kind of character. But this time imagined by a woman!
Gialli were exclusive to Italy in their heyday. As Belgians, did you find it difficult to find support for this project? Were producers and studios aware of what you were attempting to create and refer to?
Bruno: It was very hard to find financial support in Belgium because there is not really a ‘genre’ culture. But in the same way, there is a Surrealistic culture in Belgium and you can feel it in our film too. And as you will see, Amer is not a ‘classical’ giallo at all! There is a kind of free spirit in Belgium and people always say that each Belgian film is a “prototype”… and Amer is a prototype.
Hélène: About our producers, they had experienced the giallo culture. The French producer, François Cognard, was journalist for a cult French magazine of the 80’s called STARFIX, and in a certain way he made us discover that giallo culture for ourselves when we were teenagers.
Why was it important for you to use excerpts from original scores from older movies by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai for Amer? Had you ever considered an original soundtrack for the film?
Bruno: There are original scores from Cipriani, Nicolai, Celentano and Morricone… The ones we have chosen will be familiar to hardcore fans but not a wider audience. We never considered an original soundtrack because we wrote the script listening to the tracks which are in the film: they influenced the writing and we couldn’t separate them from the sequences then. And we didn’t want a reinterpretation of them because they are simply so nice.
This was your feature directorial debut. How was the experience for you? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?
Bruno: Before shooting we were terrified because we were imagining all the problems we could have on the set. And when the first day came, it was so good. But very tiring! The challenge was to film 900 shots in 39 days and to make a visually striking movie with a very low budget.
How do you think modern audiences will react to Amer and its giallo influences? What can Amer offer audiences that other contemporary horror cinema cannot? What do you think is it about this subgenre that remains so provocative?
Hélène: We think there was a very provocative spirit in the original gialli that has disappeared with the slasher. We have tried to keep that “sick spirit”. Though there is a free spirit too: those original directors were not afraid to develop incredible experimental sequences inside their exploitation movies.
Bruno: In Amer, we have focused on that creative aspect. I think a part of the audience will enjoy it because it’s a different proposition and another part will reject it because we don’t have a classical way of telling a story.
Hélène: About the influences, I think that giallo lovers could have a good time with the film because we invite them to play with their culture. The ones who don’t know will focus more on the subject and maybe Amer could be a doorway for them to discover this amazing genre!
Was it difficult to create the story with little to no dialogue? How did your actors react to this? How difficult was it for them and did they understand what you were trying to achieve?
Bruno: There’s very minimal dialogue in the film, like in all our short films. It is difficult but it pushes you to develop the audio and visual language to its maximum and it’s this cinematographic language that drives the story. It’s difficult for the actors because in this case, they have to be present in all the parts of their body. And the technical aspect of this kind of movie is very heavy too. The actors have to play in very uncomfortable contexts. It’s not the camera which is following them but the opposite. The atmosphere on the set was really comfortable though, we were working amongst friends so they trusted us.
Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema?
Bruno: I am a horror fan. In contemporary horror, I love Christopher Smith’s films and I think he’s one of the genre’s best directors. I’ve enjoyed Nacho Cerda’s The Abandoned too and the third part of Zampaglione’s Shadow where you can feel the Italian horror spirit coming back to life.
This might sound like a silly question but I shall ask it anyway! Who or what has inspired and influenced you both as filmmakers?
Hélène: Giallo and Italian exploitation movies of the 60-70’s, and their soundtracks! We also love Japanese exploitation movies of the same period. Concerning our way of writing from the sub-conscious and the association of ideas, Dario Argento’s Inferno was a huge influence. In attempting to write something that lends itself to different levels of reading, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. The way in which we attempt to work with details, Dario Argento and Shinya Tsukamoto.
Amer has been creating quite a stir on the festival circuit and has been garnering great reviews. Did you ever believe that audiences and critics would ‘get’ what you were trying to do?
Bruno: Honestly? No. Because during 3 and a half years it has been an intense fight to make this movie and you meet a lot of people who are very pessimistic when you try to make something a bit different. So the first time the film was shown in Sweden, we thought we will be lapidated by the audience. Turns out in fact they loved the film - the critics too! So we were surprised and very happy. And now, even some of the people who didn't trust us in the beginning, who were cynical and pessimistic, they changed their mind.
What is it about the dark subject matter contained in your films that compels you to explore it? Are there certain themes and ideas you like to explore as filmmakers?
Hélène: We love the Eros & Thanatos mix. It’s something that we’re very sensitive and receptive to in a fictional universe. It can be a nice metaphorical way to talk about love and an effective way to talk about our impulsions through extreme tensions.
Had you planned to use a giallo blueprint to tell your story with all along? Or was there just something about this subgenre and its various archetypes that lent itself to telling the story effectively?
Bruno: No, we have never planned to use a giallo blueprint because the main subject of the film is not a detective story. Your second proposition is the right one!
From what I’ve seen of the film so far, Amer has a very distinct and atmospheric look. How did you go about achieving this look and maintaining it throughout the film? Did you consciously set out to homage the gialli of Italian 70s/80s cinema?
Hélène: We love the way gialli were directed. It’s that kind of framing, editing, directing, lighting that gave us the faith in filmmaking. So, yes, it’s totally conscious because we are in love with that genre that we have explored throughout the past 10 years with our short films. We can’t separate our directing from the love of the giallo, we are totally intoxicated by it.
Bruno: When we wrote or directed a sequence we weren’t thinking about a specific sequence from an older giallo film. However, when we finished Amer, we watched some old gialli and we saw that we were subconsciously inspired by ‘this film’ for one sequence or ‘that film’ for another shot. It was very funny!
What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?
Bruno: We want to make a giallo set in Brussels, the male version of Amer.
Hélène: But this time we want to explore the detective aspects of gialli!
Death has a taste and it is Amer...
Visit the official website here.
Check out the startling trailer here.