Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Goodnight Mommy</i> (2014)

MISE EN SEAN – Goodnight Mommy (2014)

Sean Hanson

October 17th, 2015

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Instead of motifs, Goodnight Mommy has fetishes: blinds, reflections and doubles, bandages and masks, mouths, eyes, fire, insects, and the empty spaces of an austere IKEA home haunted by three characters who may as well be strangers to each other, even if they’re family.

The nameless mother (Susanne Wuest), gaunt and masked by bandages after a mysterious surgery, believes one of her twin sons (Lukas and Elias Schwarz, who share their characters’ names) to be a figment of the other’s imagination. The boys, in turn, believe their mother has been replaced by an impostor. Battle lines are drawn, and the two sides nurture a mutual fear. And, because we cannot trust the camera to be an impartial observer even when it maintains its distance, writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz build a film around an existential crisis that’s as fascinating as it is frustrating.

Instead of thrusting us into the narrative or introducing us to the characters, Fiala and Franz begin with an eerie juxtaposition: the Trapps’ performance of “Guten Abend, gute Nacht,” from the Austrian film on which The Sound of Music was based, followed by an impressionistic montage of the boys at play in the summer sun. Taken individually, these scenes would be innocuous. Paired, set to composer Olga Neuwirth’s pulsating score of ambient strings and airy chanting, and shot through with dissonant flourishes — an unsettling mask, a black void of a tunnel, a boy who seems to disappear — Goodnight Mommy seeds a creeping dread in just the first few minutes.

It’s clear that one or more of these characters isn’t who they say they are, but who?

Mother loses a game of Twenty Questions that might as well be a Voight-Kampff test, but she also flinches in a small moment when she encounters the son she describes as imaginary. Whether it’s some psychosis that prevents her from acknowledging her son or she has, in fact, been replaced by aliens, tragedy seems more inevitable with each passing scene. Mother imposes increasingly irrational rules. In response, they plot a rebellion and devise a plan to determine whether Mother is who she says she is.

It’s here that the film takes a different tack entirely, diving headfirst into a seemingly unrelated subgenre — a shift some critics have described as extreme, jarring, and the film’s chief failing — finding equal inspiration in The Babadook and Funny Games. As the shift is in keeping with the way in which Fiala and Franz keep escalating the film’s goals, from “mildly unnerving” to “profoundly disturbing,” and because they work so hard to keep a somewhat low gore-to-shock ratio, I think the final act works, but your mileage may vary. Regardless, because they so fully achieve an atmosphere of unease and dread in the first two-thirds, Fiala and Franz earn too much goodwill to completely squander in any final-act misstep.

After all, this is the rare horror film that offers audiences both a visceral experience and a philosophical exercise. I mentioned the Trapps above, but at least one other veiled reference to World War II finds a prominent place in the narrative, which means historians of wartime Austria — both the country of Hitler’s birth and a country ravaged, in turn, by the demands of national socialism, communism, and capitalism — might find something to chew on if they read Goodnight Mommy allegorically. (There’s also this fascinating take on what Goodnight Mommy has to say about the pressures of motherhood, further cementing comparisons to The Babadook.)

On a more fundamental level, however, Goodnight Mommy is simply scary, in a way so few films are.

Tonight, the Eugene Film Society will present a screening at 9:45 p.m. at the Bijou Metro, followed by a Q&A with Lane Community College instructor Dr. Kate Sullivan, University of Oregon instructor John Steinmetz, and Eugene Weekly film critic Rick Levin. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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