You often hear the term style over substance thrown around within the verbal and written persuasions of cinema speak by genre fans. I feel like that statement is a bit tricky. In my opinion, substance can mean many things when pertaining to cinema and that term is, at times, almost used as a descriptive crutch. This really comes into play with co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer, a French language Belgian film that takes much of its stylistic influence from the earlier works of Dario Argento (among other Italian influences), who WAS a director often cited as the definition of style over substance.
Outside of the Argento influence, Amer is a heavy nod or, better yet, a love letter to the Italian Giallo film, a style of cinema that is known for its specific traits. Sexuality, fashion, mystery, violence, John Saxon possibly wearing a funny hat and, most notably, style. Of course, with this did come many films that would showcase bad acting, nonsensical plots and lame attempts at misdirection with red herrings. This would be where the whole style over substance thing comes in to play. Nevertheless, even when the films weren't filled with "substance," what the genre did more often than not was to tantalize the viewer. Whether it be with beautiful women, intricate sound design, amazing scores and a visual pallet that would often keep the viewer biting the tip of their thumb.
Amer captures all of these attributes (as well as a bit of the 3 B's - boobs, blood and black gloves) and carries them up a few levels, however, the film is far from a typical Giallo. It avoids a distinct narrative to show the journey of a woman throughout the span of her lifetime. Told in a vignette fashion, Amer's sole focus is Ana (played by three actresses: Cassandra Forêt as young Ana, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud as teen Ana and Marie Bos as adult Ana), who is shown during three key stages in her life. Ana is a female that is intrigued by the world that surrounds her. Living under an oppressive mother, she is forced to live in what seems to be a fantasy world. A place where curiosity mixes with sexuality and fear.
Amer doesn't follow an actual story line so much as it creates a series of moments for Ana. Moments that are so intricate and pronounced, that it's difficult not to be swept up in them. Ana's journey is told through incredible editing and camerawork, with a seductive sound design that will do no less than draw one into each little moment even further. Sounds of doors creaking, the scuffing of a bare foot on a wood floor, the stretching of a leather belt. It's all there to bring the viewer in at full attention. Amer is an exercise in pure unadulterated style and the way in which it is put together is simply masterful. The use of gels, perspective, editing and points of illusion, all of which are draped over a set design filled with a tangible worn-out texture.
Within the bookends of what has tones of a horror film - outside of the tense and eerie (and very psychedelic) first act and the few brief moments of intense brutality at the end - Amer does much more than try to scare its audience. Amer is a movie about a girl that is quietly fascinated and curious about, among other things, sexuality. In many ways, Ana is sensual creature without even having to try and that is much like the film itself. Amer is, quite frankly, the sexiest movie I have ever seen, and it's done so all with technique as there is little to no nudity or sex. It's created with little touches, slight movements from the wind teasingly being flirtatious with a skirt, or a piece of hair breaching Ana's overly succulent lips. This is a film that seduces the viewer as even the tiniest of detail is driven by a sense of arousal. It's film foreplay that dances with the excitement that can come from both sex and fear.
Many will not enjoy Amer for its style over substance appearance, but sometimes substance is something that has to be worked for by the viewer, not served up for easy consumption. As an exercise in art-house experimental cinema that is meant to engage its audience with both a visual and audio assault, Amer will certainly alienate many filmgoers. If you love Gialli, then you will certainly enjoy the nod to the genre with how the film is crafted as well as the wonderful score compiled of songs that will ring familiar to Giallo fans. If you have an intense love for style and technique, this is a film that will bring you into the story using those attributes in a way unlike any other. If you have patience and don't mind being asked to fondle through subtext, you will enjoy the ponder that comes with Amer.