Throughout Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 debut feature Amer, the most prominent image is an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes. These are eyes that are looking, attempting to possess the gaze, usurping the film’s third-person perspective in favour of a direct first-person point of view. But occasionally, eyes meet eyes, the looker captivates the gaze of the looked-at. What is constant, however, is that Cattet and Forzani denaturalise these vision-shots with saturated colour. Looking is never merely instrumental in Amer. It is always soaked through with anxiety and desire, and this is the result of accumulated tension, the moment of vision acting like the firing of a gun, pressure having been built up from all of the previous moments when vision and desire had been thwarted or deranged.
Amer is the story of Ana – from benighted childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood – with this piece focusing on Ana’s childhood because it is a tour de force in terms of the cinematic expression of the logic of the Gaze, and because it functions paradigmatically, psychologically installing the ruptures and crises that will follow Ana throughout her life. For while Ana is defined by a set of familial relationships throughout the film, present or absent, these interactions are strictly positional. Cattet and Forzani never really delve into the psychology of Ana or any of the surrounding characters, in the manner you might expect from a realistic piece of fictional cinema. Instead, the characters are defined by their positions on a kind of Oedipal game board, organised according to a psychoanalytic matrix of classical familial dysfunction. Ana’s maturity does not necessarily bring with it any greater insight regarding her plight or the dangers that lie in wait for her. Instead, she merely accedes to ‘higher’, subsequent levels of the Oedipal game.
As Amer opens we see young Ana (Cassandra Forêt) looking through a peephole. At this point, we are shown only one of her eyes, as if to emphasise the partial nature of her visual knowledge. She is ostensibly cared for by a somewhat frightening old woman (Delphine Brual) under the employ of her parents, whom seem uninterested in engaging with Ana. The young girl encounters the not-quite-dead body of her grandfather, lying in state in one of the bedrooms of the family’s ornate mansion. Frightened, Ana runs to alert her parents, and discovers them in their bedroom having sex.
Cattet and Forzani stage this primal scene as an explosion of colour and flesh that forcibly penetrates the psyche of little Ana. When we get her view of the parents thrusting against each other, tilted ninety degrees to appear as though it’s happening against a wall, we get a close-up of Ana’s single eye, her pupil widening. Witnessing her mother moaning in pleasure, Ana’s two eyes are now shown in close-up (she has gone from partial to complete knowledge) but her eyes are kaleidoscopically fragmented (her knowledge divides her psyche, becomes the stuff of the unconscious). At this point, both the sex scene and Ana’s eyes become a dense montage of body parts, sweat, and broken vision, depicted in highly saturated forest green, crimson, canary, and midnight blue.
In discussing the nature of the gaze, Jacques Lacan articulates how the desire to look always entails the danger of becoming the subject of the look oneself. We are but a set of eyes in a skull, and as Freud noted about children, they are “little detectives” when it comes to trying to figure out the secrets of the forbidden adult world. But Ana gets more than she bargained for. When you look, you make yourself vulnerable, to the look of others, but also to the Gaze, which is the full force of Freudian scopic power, that castrating Law that punishes those who see what they are not meant to see. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan describes “the pre-existence of a gaze – I only see from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.”1 Ana’s mother sees Ana – her single (green) eye meets Ana’s (blue) eye just as the mother is about to orgasm. But even if Ana had not seen herself being seen, the Gaze, as an agent of the Superego, would have instilled shame and confusion eventually. Society provides the interdiction against what has just happened in that room.
And why did she enter the room in the first place? Ana feels menaced by the housekeeper, someone she cannot even be certain is there, at least until they have their eventual confrontation – a tug of war over the grandfather’s pocket watch. Why is this? As Cattet and Forzani organise the spaces and frames of part one of Amer, the housekeeper is always just out of Ana’s sight. She is slipping out of rooms right as Ana enters, edging out of frames or existing in the periphery. Ana’s desire to confront, or at least examine, the possible horror is continually thwarted, and this means that her sense of danger is deemed untrustworthy. She’s just a kid, after all.
This uncertainty parallels the unmasterable Gaze; the subject always aware that the visual field contains an excess that impinges on the psyche but that cannot be pinned down. Analysing this problem, Lacan cites Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533), in which two Dutch merchants are standing proudly with their possessions. But across the bottom of the canvas, there is a diagonal scar that clearly exists in a different world from the room occupied by the men. When looked at from a 45-degree angle to the canvas, the smudge resolves into a skull, a memento mori placed on an anamorphic tilt from the rest of the image.
One cannot clearly see the men and the skull at the same time. The viewer is forced to choose one or the other “reality”. Lacan, in speaking about The Ambassadors, explains what it means when the truth of vision is restricted, relegated to an altogether different plane of meaning. “Holbein makes visible for us here something that is simply the subject as annihilated – annihilated in the form that is, strictly speaking, the imaged embodiment of … castration.”2
To be subject to the Gaze, but to possess no mastery over the look, is to be powerless and subject to the whims of your tormentors. In witnessing the primal scene, Ana learns that this is the only avenue available to women within the psychoanalytic matrix. So Ana watches as her mother achieves orgasm with a tear streaming from mother’s eye and down her cheek. This is the melancholy science of female masochism, of “gaining power” by accepting castration and making oneself the subject of the look, rather than trying to be the possessor of the Gaze. Ana learns this lesson all too well and as a teenager (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), she pouts and cavorts for a line of filthy male bikers. Her mother slaps her for her trouble, not so much for acting like a tart, as for the younger woman definitively replacing the older woman in the heterosexual matrix. Of course, she might well temper her jealousy, knowing what life has in store for Ana, and for all women condemned to this structure of masochism.
Cattet and Forzani express these optical crises in appropriated visual languages: the Italian giallo thriller and the Japanese ‘pink’ eiga amongst others – somewhat disreputable genres that bent New Wave, Pop Art and fashion influences towards a new idiom. However their stylistic archeology refrains from direct quotation or explicit homage. There is something there, on another plane of knowledge, but we cannot pin it down – presque vu not déjà vu. The viewer is placed in a position to the Gaze not unlike Ana’s; we are shadowed by the Other of History, forced into a double-consciousness as we watch.
We are never completely with Ana, Cattet or Forzani. As Ana moves forward across her board, they are forever sending us back to an unspecified past. In this way, the filmmakers use cinematic style to enact one of the most fundamental aspects of psychoanalysis, Nachträglichkeit, or “deferred action”. This is the moment when an event such as a trauma occurs, and rather than simply altering the future, it retroactively changes the past. For Ana, her later status as a desiring young adult, and her mother’s jealous slap, retroactively recodes her childhood discovery of her parents en flagrante. Henceforth, Ana has always been a “dirty girl.”
Likewise, for the viewer, we are caught in a web of reference that we cannot specify. Amer strikes us as both familiar and somehow “underground”, part of a network forbidden of sub rosa cinematic objects that fall well outside the realm of “official” film history. We somehow recognise that Cattat and Forzani are appropriating these phantom styles for an intertextual art experiment. And yet, this is the premise that lures us into the house of ill repute. Like Ana, we are tarnished by deferred action. Upon experiencing the pleasures of Amer, we must recognise that we have always already harboured hidden desires for the canon’s secret Other.