The relationships between family is a common topic of many films. Hopping between genres, the highs and lows of parenthood, marriage, sibling rivalry, and loving in-laws are often explored in imaginative ways. However, never before has a film explored these thematics with such subtle ferocity, and to such disturbing effect, until Goodnight Mommy (otherwise known natively as Ich Seh, Ich Seh). This Austrian horror directed and written by duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala slowly scratches at your discomfort, cementing itself like super glue into your thoughts.
Focusing specifically on the relationship between mother and child, Goodnight Mommy’s central, and for the most part only characters, are two young twins: Lukas and Elias, respectively played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz. Their stringent mother is played superbly by Susanne Wuest. Having returned from surgery, the mother’s face is wrapped in bandages and indistinguishable, bar her piercing, cerulean glare. This leads the children to question her true identity. A notion not to be taken lightly, what to a child is more frightening than the possibility of a parent becoming someone else entirely? Lukas and Elias’ fear, and later their determination, is central to the films remarkably chilling tone.
Masterfully shot on 35mm, the wide angle lens gives us often more detail than we want to see, and yet it is hard to cringe away from. There is an unnerving beauty to the works of the cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht, as he executes the camera. Set entirely in their lavish home and the surrounding Austrian countryside, Gschlacht creates characters out of the locations like a puppeteer jerking them in one direction and then another. The dim, womb-like lighting of the home is contrasted with the bleak, white of the outside world. This is both comforting yet frightening simultaneously. The brothers’ eagerness to play outside, even when it’s raining, is logical when it’s compared to the cocooning darkness of the house that seemingly seeks to encapsulate them.
Logic, however, gives way to draconian, savage acts as the plot moves forward. To say anything more would be to spoil its effect. However, there is a certain masochistic undertone to the way in which the camera holds steady at moments of surprising violence; I found myself unable to look away from the screen as the tension between mother and children is heightened, my sympathies constantly swaying between them. Now I think they lie somewhere halfway, as we are left trying to understand the attitudes that drove these characters. The acting is admirable, and it is not often that I am so convinced by young actors, but Lukas and Elias Schwarz are directed subtly and carefully so as never to lose the edge of ghostliness that they have about them. Culminating in a sanguinary, uncomforting end, unfortunately the climax is not quite as surprising as Franz and Fiala might have hoped. Although a few friends of mine did react with astonishment, it seemed that there were far too many clues placed throughout the film as to make the final scenes truly alarming. This is not to say that it is unimpressive, but it will be expected by some viewers.
Goodnight Mommy is an eerie, nightmarish look into the affinity of the maternal and the dependence of kith and kin. Reminiscent of The Babadook (2014) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) in its dismantling of the mother-son relationship, but wholly different in its frightful third act. This is a technically marvellous, tense film that will have you feeling unsettled and hooked throughout.
Goodnight Mommy is released in UK cinemas on 12 February 2016.
– Ben Reynolds