'Amer' and 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams' Give Shape to the Dark Side of Dreams

If you're the kind of person who spends a lot of time fiddling around on the web, by now you've probably seen the short news video discussing a recent breakthrough in which researchers were able to use brain scans to "see" what's on your mind. One of the possible implications entails scientists being able to record your dreams and play them back. If you're the kind of person with a catalog of art-house hits of past decades filed in your brain, this might well bring to mind Wim Wenders' 1991 film Until the End of the World, a forgettable effort but for an indelible section in which a group of characters stumble across new technology that allows them to record and play back their dreams. They immediately sink into addicted torpor, sleeping to dream and waking only to watch their unconscious play out before their eyes.

Of course, projecting dreams and visions onscreen for mass consumption is a big part of the point of movies, period, and dreams—not to mention nightmares—are a standard device/lens for even the most prosaic cinema. Perhaps no school of filmmaking has made more of the irreducible power of dreams than late 20th-century Italian giallo, the crazed horror/thriller flicks spawned by directors such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, etc. There's no room here to get into the ins and outs of the genre, but its emphasis on over-the-top visual style, gore, psychological tension, and sensuousness over linear sense gives films such as Argento's 1977 Suspiria enormous power to unsettle, even today. And now filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have brought classic giallo back alive with Amer (Olive Films DVD and Blu-ray).

The film is divided into three sections: In the first, young Ana (Cassandra Foret) experiences terror in her own family's creepy mansion, thanks to the dessicated corpse of her grandfather, which is kept lying on his old bed, and a sinister governess in a black lace veil. Or at least that's what seems to be happening—in giallo, one guess is often as good as another. In any event, it's genuinely eerie. In the second section, teenage Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud) has a tense encounter with a gang of bikers during a torrid summer walk. In the third, a grown Ana (Marie Bos) returns to the creepy family mansion, where the fears raised in the first two sections come to fruition. But what Amer is "about" in terms of whatever narrative you can parse is arguably less important than the experience of taking it in, of sharing Ana's fear at the inchoate dread of her family's unusual living situation, and of the sensory strangeness of her young world (which Cattet and Forzani eventually reduce to glowing primary colors); of feeling the glare-obscured, fragmentary intensities of summer heat and budding sexuality; of plunging into the darkness of past fears, haunted moments, and possibly psychosis. It might be tempting to dismiss Amer as an empty style exercise, with its retro fashions and juked-up colors and throwback frenzied classic giallo score, but beneath its elegant surfaces lies a genuine touch of the uncanny.

No one would mistake Japanese cinema legend Akira Kurosawa for an incoherent sensualist. His string of film classics, from period epics Seven Samurai and Ran to noir-style potboilers such as High and Low—not to mention the foundational Rashomon—are notable for their rigorous clarity. Yet as he neared the end of his career, and his life, he indulged himself just a bit in 1990's Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, now available on DVD and download from the Warner Archive video-on-demand service.

It seems that Kurosawa must not have rested easy. Though several of the eight short segments here offer pleasant visions, most unsettle. Opening section "Sunshine in the Rain" is one of several set in a more traditional Japan of kimonos and folklore. In it, a young boy happens across a fox wedding (acted out eerily by humans in stylized fox make-up). Having angered the foxes by spying on their ceremony, he returns home to his mother saying she can't let him in—he must win the foxes' forgiveness or kill himself. Yikes. In "The Blizzard," a team of mountain climbers trudge in painful slow-motion through the snow in the death zone on a high peak and confront icy eternal sleep in the form of a beautiful woman. Two segments, "Mount Fuji in Red" and "The Weeping Demon," offer nightmare imaginings of Japan post-nuclear holocaust, a lifelong gnawing worry of the director.

Again, not every dream here is likely to cause cold sweats. "Crows," for one, offers a scenario in which a fledgling artist finds himself inside the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, only to meet the artist himself (played by Martin Scorsese, who should stick to directing). Visually inventive, it's woefully soft-headed compared to the rest of the segments. But even in this fragmentary format, Kurosawa's overall mastery is evident, from his grasp of craft (conjuring imminent frozen death on a soundstage in "The Blizzard") to his eye for metaphor (hapless victims flailing at blowing fallout—represented by colored smoke—on a bare cliff in "Mount Fuji in Red") to his gift for story (a Japanese commander confronting the soldiers he lost in the war in "The Tunnel"). Dreams isn't usually numbered among the director's greatest films, but it should be.