By Noel Vera
Directed by Severin Fiala
and Veronika Franz
SEVERIN FIALA and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy is perfect Mother’s Day fare — if your idea of Mother’s Day involves packing tape, sharp cuticle scissors, and a magnifying glass.
The premise is simplicity itself: Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz, real-life twins) are enjoying the perfect summer vacation — a swim in the lake, a hike in the woods, a brief spell exploring a small cave where a whimpering cat lies wounded (the nature of its injury never really clarified) on a floor of thighbones and skulls.
That latter detail by the way is typical of how the two directors work: an otherwise idyllic image with some persistent detail — a too-lengthy gaze into a dark hole or a boy holding his breath underwater for an unnerving amount of time — suggesting all is not as idyllic as it seems.
That style arguably has its finest moment with the arrival of the boys’ mother. Long shot of the house as a car arrives; the boys run eagerly into the house and up the stairs and into the bedroom; cut to a figure (Susanne Wuest) with her back to us standing at the far end, just as she pulls the blinds shut. She turns and walks up close, and you can see the dark bruises, the bandages crisscrossing her face. “That’s a fine hello,” she notes as they stand at the doorway, uncertain. Is this their mother?
Fiala and Franz sustains that uncertainty for an admirable amount of time, with mother and children working through the haze towards some kind of understanding. At one point the trio play a parlor game, a stick-it note on the forehead while the player asks “yes or no” questions — when the woman gets “MOM” taped on hers she can’t guess the answer no matter how many questions she asks. Later she yanks the video game they have been playing and lays on the new ground rules: no playing indoors, no loud noises, and if visitors call they’re to be told that “Mommy’s ill.” The twins look at each other and whisper: “She’s so different.” “It’s the operation.” “Are you sure?”
The film despite all the serene landscapes and that vast modern mansion feels confined, even claustrophobic — for all the space allowed them their gaze is fixed inwards, inside the rooms at each other. It’s not especially useful as a character study — too much information is withheld for too long, and the surreal details don’t really add up to a convincing portrait of the interior state of anyone. But as a parody of mother-son relations — and more to the point, of mother-son tensions — I think it’s a hilarious success. The twins and their suspect mother are obviously working out some unspoken trauma, their exchanges if anything tamer than the kind of conversations you hear in houses nowadays (it’s not so much what they say as what they feel and eventually do that’s so disturbing).
There’s a narrative twist, though not all that twisted — any reasonably alert viewer can figure it out less than 10 minutes into the picture — but Fiala and Franz do perfectly fine without the surprise, keeping the film balanced between dark deadpan domestic comedy and straight-up Neo-Gothic horror (the setting may be ultramodern chic but the shadows and dark passages are there, even the requisite giant portraits with mysteriously blurred photographs). More interesting than the twist is a kind of point-of-view pivot (something Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook tried with far less success) — Mommy arriving wrapped in bandages; at about the one-hour mark the bandages are gone but now the twins have donned masks, bizarre green insect faces trimmed in red indicating what’s to come.
Fiala and Franz’s film evokes the look and feel of several others, from Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games to M. Night Shyamalan’s recent The Visit, not to mention the unflinching plainspoken camera of Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (Franz is married to Seidl, who produced this film). I’d even throw in Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane for the domestic parody (in that case it’s a pretend family playing at house; in this case it’s a more or less real family, but the play is just as false).
The final 10 or so minutes (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) erupt into action, as if to make up for all the static shots and tension simmering through the previous two-thirds — which is unfortunate; when the film is static and simmering you feel as if it still had something in reserve, some mystery to reveal (all that’s left when hell breaks loose is the narrative twist, which we saw coming over an hour ago). Some of the effects are equally clumsy — a zoom-in to a blooded eye violates the film’s sense of freakish serenity, but a later scene, of Mommy naked in the woods and violently shaking her head, has the eerie silence of a genuine nightmare.
Shyamalan’s The Visit pulls everything together into a moment of love and togetherness; Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield manages to churn out a few fluid action sequences before succumbing to a bad case of digital effects. Fiala and Franz don’t seem to have the chops to do fast and furious, but when they’re still and silent they’re unnervingly so, and their film has a real presence. Looking forward to their next turn of the screw.