Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich seh)
Austria (2014) Dirs. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
The bond between mother and son can often be a close and unbreakable one – despite conventional wisdom pairing off fathers and sons and mother and daughters For the twin protagonists of this creepy outing from the team of Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala, that bond is about to be tested in a most extreme way.
During one hot summer nine year-old identical twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) play alone in a huge country house while their mother (Susanne Wuest) is away having cosmetic surgery. Finally she returns home but instead of a fanfare, the mother slips quietly into the house as they play outside. The bandages covering the mother’s face is not the only obstacle preventing the boys from recognising her.
Insisting on peace and quiet, the blinds permanently drawn and other strict rules they are not used to disarms the twins, but when their mother only talks directly to Lukas yet behaves aggressively towards him, they become scared. A photo in the family album shows their mother with a similar looking woman which only raises further suspicions, so they set about exposing the truth.
One can’t help but think that, as bizarre as this sounds, this could have been a Disney comedy in the vein of The Parent Trap, naturally with less violence and dark intentions, given the resourcefulness and canny tenacity of the young twins to realise something is wrong and needs rectifying. Some of their cruel innovations even recall Home Alone in their swift effectiveness of shutting down further misdemeanours – or they would if they didn’t result in bloodshed.
Under regular circumstances I wouldn’t mention the directors’ gender and forgive me if this sounds just a tad chauvinistic, but it is unusual to see brutal treatment of the maternal bond to come from a female mind, in this case co-writer/director Veronika Franz. I would sooner expect it from the likes of Lars von Trier or somebody with a mother complex to concoct such a grisly and traumatic yarn but there you go.
At first the boys seem like your average twins, practically joined at the hip and even dressed in similar attire. They are the outdoors type, getting dirty in the woods, wet in the water, whilst at home they have a tank full of cockroaches. Their excitement at their mother coming home can’t be contained but her distant attitude and stern behaviour quickly deflates her sons’ enthusiasm.
With the boys becoming so convinced that this woman isn’t their other, and not believing her pithy replies to why her beauty spot rubs off once the bandages are removed or about the woman in photograph, they appear to have good reason for taking the initiative to extort the truth from their “mother”. Then again, why is the mother being so secretive and why the change in attitude? Surely she would be elated to be home again with her sons?
Being young the boys don’t really give their mother (her name is never mentioned) much of a chance to explain since their campaign begins in earnest rather quickly, tying the mother to her bed and in one instance super-gluing her mouth shut! Since she remains deliberately cagey however perhaps it is understandable that two scared and callow minds would lash out in such an severe manner if they feel their family unit is being threatened.
It is fair to say that the level of ingenuity of these two young boys is startling precocious to the point of stretching credibility a little, going from playing in the mud to holding their mother prisoner inside 20 minutes. But the naivety behind some if it, such as the superglue, is in keeping with finding a rash solution without fully understanding or considering the consequences of their actions.
This is where the film’s categorisation as a psychodrama feels more appropriate than the preferred horror label it has been given – the ostensive battle of wills between two sides untrusting of each other when a simple word or gesture could diffuse the whole situation. Yet there are a few grotesque scenes to make us squirm that earn the horror tag – yours truly had to cover his eyes during a horrid moment with a cockroach that I’m sure will also prove uncomfortable for others.
Everything gets explained in the final act and all ambiguity is cleared up but here comes the caveat – it is nothing original. I could name the film that immediately sprung to mind that shares the same reveal but that would spoil the entire film. In hindsight the clues were there and perhaps I should have seen it coming but because I didn’t, that at least shows what a fantastic job Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala did in distracting me with this engrossing work.
Making this skilful wool-pulling endeavour so successful is the presentation, completely free of a musical soundtrack to act as a mood setter, allowing the silence and natural sounds to compliment the stunning photographer set the atmosphere instead. There are a couple of jump scares present but they work in this minimalist context; it is the creative tableaux that provide the real chills, from the nightmarish scenes with the cockroaches to a beautifully captured scene acted out in silhouettes.
Ostensibly a three hander, the film was shot chronologically and the cast had no script ahead of time yet this doesn’t show, so we must congratulate them on a job well done. The brothers being portrayed by real life twins adds the requisite naturalism to their bond and they fit between creepy and cowed with perhaps too much conviction. Susanne Wuest has the toughest role and suffers the most but does so with aplomb.
I‘m sure some will quibble over the familiarity of the big reveal but Goodnight Mommy is a gorgeously presented film that succeeds as a gripping psychological horror/mystery providing unsettling chills in not underestimating the emotional resolve of the young.