SIFF Film Review – Goodnight Mommy
For two thirds of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh, 2014) I was completely entranced by its mystery. Coming out of Germany, this film taps into our deepest fears about childhood: not knowing if our loved ones can be trusted. What would happen if the people we’ve always known turned into something we don’t recognize – something colder, crueler, and more dangerous? That’s a scary thought to have, especially for those that are closest to us. Sadly, there are too many instances in this world where young people have actually gone through those emotions. Suffice to say: this isn’t your everyday, happy go lucky kind of experience.
We open on an idyllic country house in the middle of the summer. Two nine year old twin boys Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are shown playing tag in the middle of a cornfield. Early on, we can sense that something is amiss. Fiala and Franz (who also co-wrote the screenplay) set a menacing tone right away. Seeing two kids in the middle of a vast field – one of whom is wearing a disturbing looking mask – while the camera slowly peers in, we intuit that something dreadful lurks this way.
Another issue with this opening passage is that there is no adult supervision. Elias and Lukas freely roam the grounds and explore dark corners without a watchful eye making sure they’re safe. That is until their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home. “Mother” just had cosmetic surgery done to her face (there are clues hinting she is an actress), and when she comes back, she’s shown with bandages all around her head to cover the scarring. The “mask” motif is repeated here. Just as Elias and Lukas wear a mask as they play their game, their mother also wears a kind of mask hiding her away from them.
But the surgery does more than clear away imperfections on Mother’s face. The once loving, deeply caring person Elias and Lukas remember has changed into a domineering, nasty stranger who is both verbally and physically abusive to them. Who is this person? Has the surgery actually changed her personality, or is this a completely different person pretending to be their mother?
This set up had me gripped. It’s a cat and mouse game between the kids and this grown adult whose face we can barely see through the bandages. The fact that there is no other parent in the house (no father figure to turn to) compounds the claustrophobic feeling. There’s a growing level of tension as Elias and Lukas start to dig deeper, trying to uncover any potential deceit Mother maybe playing on them. The way she answers certain questions, how she reacts in particular situations, nothing seems to be adding up. But how will Elias and Lukas really know the truth, if they only have one person to reference to?
Fiala and Franz build the anxiety very slowly. This isn’t a horror film in the traditional slasher or ghost story kind of way, but it is nerve wracking. The more we start to question who “Mother” is, the more we become concerned with how she will act toward Elias and Lukas. There are tiny moments that catch us off guard. In one scene, the kids walk up behind Mother to see what she is doing, only to have her see them from a mirror, her bloodshot eye flashing right at the camera. Not really the heartwarming kind of motherly figure, is she?
The first two acts have us wondering where this will all go. The third act answers those questions, but how successfully it does will be up to the viewer. The subtlety and mystery that we’d been following is replaced by a very brutal finale. Motivations are switched upside down, calling into conflict everything we thought we knew. In the same way Michael Haneke tests a viewer’s tolerance in his Funny Games films, so does Fiala and Franz in the closing passages of Goodnight Mommy. It’s unpleasant and extreme – if it’s meant to push an audience perceptions of what “entertainment” is, then I suppose you can say it accomplished its goal. However, I was so invested with how everything slowly unraveled that this unexpected turn put me off. There are revelations and twists that come about arbitrarily, and don’t really make sense once we step back and think about it. I was far more interested in the suspense building than the “torture porn” payoff.
Goodnight Mommy is not for everyone. Those that enjoy delving into horrid acts of violence (involving women and children) will find something to take away here. Others may find it too hard to digest. That’s not to say that Fiala and Franz are not good filmmakers. Everything leading up to the finale was great. I was fascinated with the set up and the interplay between identity and the multiple forms of duality. In this case, however, the journey was much more rewarding than the destination.