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The Dare

Compromising the Position of Giallo Cinema: The Gothic Journeys of Cattet & Forzani: Chapter Three, The Erotic Cutting of Gazes

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

About mid-way through Amer, Cattet & Forzani stage what is perhaps the most awkwardly dramatic taxi ride in cinematic history. Travis Bickle may have a number of adventures in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but most of what occurs in his cab is shot in a realistic, gritty style. When Ana (Marie Bos), Amer’s protagonist, sits down in the back seat she has an immediate physical reaction to the hot leather upholstery. The scene is almost like the directors’ personalized version of the opening passage in Pauline Réage’s The Story of O.[1] However, this classic piece of erotica is all about a woman submitting to men, beginning with an order to remove her undergarments in order to feel the upholstery under her naked body. In Amer what occurs is dictated by the woman’s own desires. What continues is a fantastic ride in which almost nothing happens except the building of libidinal tension. This tension is not always pleasant, but the paradoxical mixture of fear and desire creates a feeling of excitement in the passive-aggressive confrontation between Ana and the silent, rearview-leering driver. Teresa de Lauretis writes, “The present task of theoretical feminism and of feminist film practice alike is to articulate the relations of the female subject to representation, meaning, and vision, and in so doing to construct the terms of another frame of reference, another measure of desire.” [2]Cattet & Forzani measure desire in a way that is different from both the horror genre tradition and the women’s film. Their measurements are often murky and paradoxical, weighed on a Gothic scale. The Gaze itself is often the subject of their camera lens. Ana dares to return the driver’s rearview staring, and the fast-paced editing exhaustively brings the viewers’ attention to cinema’s perennial issue of who gets to look. Cattet & Forzani bring this question further, positing not only the question of who gets to look, but how is a female character allowed to react to what she sees?

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

The seven-minute sequence is immediately preceded by a brief, one-minute prelude of anxiety and claustrophobia. Shot entirely with extreme close ups at a slow shutter speed, Ana’s eyes and mouth react to an onslaught of masculine hands and arms appearing to surround her. The soundtrack consists of an ambient hum and her increasingly quickened breathing, as a hairy man-chest imposes upon the frame. As the camera begins to shake and gyrate, it seems that the masculine limbs and body parts are assaulting her. A shrieking violin turns into the industrial noise of a subway train coming to a stop, and an overhead shot reveals that she is sandwiched among a throng of bodies. From here she squeezes through the gauntlet of ambivalent bodies, figures who refuse to make way for the apparently lone woman in the train car. The scene shows what many women must deal with every day—the claustrophobia of saturated public transportation, which usually leads to discomfort more than arousal. In this brief scene, at first it is only Ana’s eyes that we see, the male figures reduced to imposing obstacles. Amer favors the woman’s look, but what she sees is not always coded as pleasant.

Outside of the Roquebrune Cap-Martin train station, Ana takes a moment to wipe the sweat from her brow and puts on a pair of large, retro sunglasses typical of giallo cinema fashion. She spots a taxi, the driver leaning against its side, smoking a cigarette. Followed by a close-up profile shot of this silver-haired, leather-clad fellow, it is not explicit that he returns her look. The next shot, in which we see Ana from a distance, framed in between his legs, is almost farcically presented; while he doesn’t necessarily make eye contact with her, his crotch is certainly pointed in her direction. She approaches, slowly, cautiously, yet determined, with a gait eerily like the one her childhood self used when approaching the room of her dead grandfather previously in the film. She enters into the driver’s close-up shot. He still does not look directly at her, the sounds of cigarette burning and leather jacket moving adding an awkward tension to the silent encounter. He slowly puts on a pair of black leather gloves, earlier noted as yet another giallo cinema fashion accessory, although one usually associated with aggression and death.

As mentioned above, Ana’s entrance into the back seat is immediately met with the physical discomfort of sun-scorched leather upholstery, making her recoil and pull her powder-blue dress down, covering her thighs. While the driver may be acting passively, his automobile itself becomes an oppositional force. His black-gloved hand turns on a small fan that only succeeds in blowing her skirt back into a compromised position. Finally their eyes lock, but through the reflection of the rearview mirror. Both looks are confrontational. She averts her legs from the blow of the fan and finally, words are spoken: “Villa des Corbieres, 36 route de Castillon.” This sequence of apprehension and eroticism is not without a certain humor, although it may be of the most deadpan kind. Even the most sadistic sequences of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) include a tone of dark, deadly humor. As far as Cattet & Forzani go, their scenes of rising tension are not without muted aural and visual jokes here and there. The blaring sound of a song from the radio shocks the viewer out of the quiet scene, only to abruptly stop as the car stalls. It starts back up, and we are on our way.

As she receives the refreshing blow of cool wind, the scene collapses into complete fantasy. The camera angles become askew, no longer driving the scene forward, but throwing it into complete irrationality. We go from montage descended from Sergei Eisenstein to a type more reminiscent of the frenetic Dziga Vertov. The camera captures a vertical angle, as opposed to the typical horizontal format. The scarf she is wearing blows off. Camera angles are mirrored for no particular reason other than aesthetic sensibility. Her sunglasses blow off. The seatbelt comes alive and begins to act like some kind of living entity, slowly moving over her breasts. The seams of her dress begin to break apart. During this entire montage there is continuous cutting back to a very extreme close-up of the driver’s eye—we can almost feel the gooey texture of it. But is this an actual representation of the driver looking back, and/or through the rearview mirror at Ana, or is it her fantasized perception of what is happening? The seams of her dress continue to pull apart until we see a swift, black-gloved hand ripping it apart from the throat. Her left breast is exposed for less than a split second—and suddenly she comes out of her daydream. She shields her chest as if being attacked. There is a point of view cut to the driver, now stopped and waiting to be paid the fare, staring directly at her. There is a look of confusion and shame on Ana’s face. The driver takes the money from her, his gloved pinky finger slightly raised. As he exits the vehicle to retrieve her luggage from the trunk, she looks into his purse. She is attracted to a pink comb, but he returns before she can act upon her thoughts. She exits the taxi. It drives off. The sequence is over. Thoughts of that driver and his comb will come back to haunt her.

Returning to de Lauretis, she continues-

“The achieved hegemony of both the cinematic and psychoanalytic institutions proves that, far from destroying visual and sexual pleasure, the discourse on desire produces and multiplies its instances. The question then is how to reconstruct or organize vision from the “impossible” place of female desire, the historical place of the female spectator between the look of the camera and the image on the screen, and how to represent the terms of her double identification in the process of looking at her looking.” [2]

With the creation of their protagonist Ana, Cattet & Forzani bring the iconography of giallo cinema into question, wondering how they can use such tools to signify a commonly repressed feminine desire that is itching to find cinematic representation. The taxi sequence encapsulates the way in which they challenge the male gaze and breach the illusion of its power. The driver is nervous about getting caught looking directly, making his surreptitious eyes simultaneously creepier and less powerful. Most of the time we see only a reflection of his eyes, inferring that the look of the male is being reflected back on to the spectators. This destabilizes the voyeuristic gaze of male spectators in that they are confronted with the oppressive force their own gazes hold. Meanwhile, instead of being viewed as a typical sexualized object, the subject of the sequence specifically is Ana’s sexuality. The speechless driver is the character who is along for the ride in the female character’s erotic fantasy. His look, and imagery of his eyes can be and are mobilized as an instrument in Ana’s fantastic daydream. When she feels the gaze, female viewers also feel the invasive force. The reason suspense and discomfort work in film is because the situation is relatable to real life experiences. Through a suspension of disbelief, viewers are allowed to transform the discomfort of reality into fantasies that are positive, negative, or fantastic beyond such categorization. The power of cinema lies in the ability to take control of horrifying or imposing situations.

Bitter Gothic

It should be noted that Amer veers away from the traditional female Gothic plots that Hoeveler writes about in Gothic Feminism, using a more modern take on what the term “Gothic” can mean. While adult Ana still explores her former, now seemingly haunted house, it is not just the space that is threatening, but what her mind projects onto it. Richard Davenport-Hines writes, “The legitimation among English-speaking peoples of this scouring, self-conscious introspection has led to a more acute awareness of the fragmentation of inner human experiences. Gothic has thus become an aesthetic of interior disorientation and divided selves.” [3]

When she wakes up to find bleeding cuts all over her legs, any reality in the film completely dissipates, as Ana’s phantasy takes over. The sequence is completely enveloped in a blue tone, referential to the B-movie day-for-night shooting style, further connoting the unreality on screen. We see the figure of the taxi driver from the previous sequence prowling around the chateau. This is intercut with close-up shots of Ana, presumably, putting on long black leather gloves and pants. The gloved hands hold a straight razor, already smeared with blood (Had she been cutting herself?) The narrative diegesis begins to get very confusing when we see a point-of-view shot of the gloved hands pad-locking the gate shut, juxtaposed with Ana watching this action from a different viewpoint. The double is beginning to form. In another shot, we see the gloved hands covering her mouth and holding the straight razor up to her neck, but a close examination of the shot reveals that the gloved hands are her own.

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

She breaks free (from herself) and as she moves through the woods, seeming to flee the taxi driver, she puts one of her hands down the front of her pants, eroticizing the situation of being pursued. Eventually she overtakes the taxi driver, slashing his face multiple times and driving a knife into his neck. She seems to pass out after the phantasy slaying, but upon waking up, a threat is still there, the faceless figure that is Ana’s double continues to pursue her. Freud writes, “This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another—by what we should call telepathy, so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings and experience in common with the other. Or it is marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which self he is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own.” [4] This doubling is partially the case for Ana, except for the fact that the double chasing after her does not physically resemble her, but rather some kind of shadow. As the chase continues, at one point we barely see someone ahead of her running away, which brings into question who is being chased by whom. Ultimately the scene ends with Ana stabbing the shadow in the chest, the wound emitting a whitish, seminal fluid, indicating a sexual climax.

These fantasies and desires of Ana, and various characters in Strange Color, often contain urgent fluctuations of fear, pleasure, and the implosion of both emotions. In their article “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,” Jean Laplanche & J.B. Pontalais state their thoughts on earlier psychoanalysts, Freud and Ferenszi—

“behind the facts, and through their mediation, it is a new language, that of passion, which is introduced by the adult into the infantile “language” of tenderness. On the other hand, this language of passion is the language of desire, necessarily marked by prohibition, a language of guilt and hatred, including the sense of annihilation linked with orgiastic pleasure.”[5]

Whether it is because of an intervening factor upon someone during their infantile period, or some other reason beyond psychoanalytic thought, libidinal pleasure has the ability to be linked to annihilation of oneself, another person, or the entire world. This annihilating force is a cornerstone of horror cinema.

These uncanny sequences, accomplished through great technical innovation and expertise, bring to mind Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ideas on “The Cinema of Poetry.” Pasolini writes that this approach to filmmaking “liberates the expressive possibilities stifled by traditional narrative conventions, by a sort of return to their origins, which extends even to rediscovering in the technical means of cinema their original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary qualities.” [6] Cattet & Forzani align themselves with this non-narrative style in a variety of ways—the presentation of non-chronological time, unnatural color that defies reality, camera angles that clash with horizontal eyesight, placement of sound effects that do not synchronize with anything in the images, etc. Perhaps what is most poetic about Amer is it’s lack of dialogue throughout most of the film. By the last 30 minutes, not one word is spoken. Cattet & Forzani go back to the origins of cinema, when movies relied entirely on visuals and non-synchronous sound to effectively tell a story.

Mikel J. Koven theorizes that the original gialli also acted as cinema of poetry in line with Pasolini’s ideas, although this is highly debatable. [7] He suggests that excessive use of point-of-view shots, extreme closes ups, fast zooms, and “false openings,” indicated the sub-genre’s poetic quality, although these techniques may have just been used as hasty examples of shoddy filmmaking—there is a fine line between art cinema and poorly crafted cinema. Not to say that there are no gialli with redeeming artistic value, but with the rate and mode of production of such films in Europe at that time, some gialli may be examples of cinematic poetry, although this poetry may be very awful. Returning to Pasolini, he states: “Of what use is it to have identified and, in a way, baptized this recent technico-stylistic tradition “cinema of poetry?” A simple terminological convenience, evidently, and which is senseless unless one then proceeds to a comparative examination of this phenomenon in relation to a larger political, social and cultural situation.” [8] Giallo films of the 1960’s and 70’s were made as part of the vernacular Italian culture industry, not purely as artworks critiquing the socio-political atmosphere of the time. The films of Cattet & Forzani, however, do have socio-political messages, not just about contemporary cinema and the way it presents gender and sexuality, but also about how the original gialli did or did not do such things 40 to 50 years earlier. Amer is just as similar to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), a film that Pasolini uses as a poetic example) as it is to Luciano Ercoli’s lurid giallo Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970).

Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)

This article is part of an ongoing series, Chapter One can be found here.

References:

[1]Réage, Pauline. Story of O. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013.
[2]de Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1984. p. 69.
[3]Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. New York: North Point Press, 1998. p. 304.
[4]Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
[5]Laplanche, Jean and J.B. Pontalais. “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality.” The Internal Journal of Psycho-analysis, Vol. 49. 1968. p. 5.
[6]Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “The Cinema of Poetry.” Movies and Methods Vol. 1. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1976. p. 7.
[7]Koven, Mikel J. La Dulce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2006. pp. 141-157
[8]Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “The Cinema of Poetry.” Movies and Methods Vol. 1. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1976. p. 10.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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