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Not since Michael Haneke unleashed a pair of psychotic young sadists on an unsuspecting family in his original 1997 Funny Games has a summer getaway in the peaceful Austrian countryside seemed less like a vacation. A wicked little chiller full of foreboding and malevolent twists, Goodnight Mommy is the first narrative feature from writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, respectively the partner and nephew of producer Ulrich Seidl. As that connection might imply, this insidious tale of a mother-son bond gone haywire is squirm-inducing stuff. It has cult potential stamped all over it.
“Come play with us, Danny,” beckoned the terrifying ghost girls in The Shining. “Forever and ever and ever.” From Margot Kidder and her formerly conjoined sibling in Brian De Palma‘s early Sisters through a demented Jeremy Irons times two in David Cronenberg‘s Dead Ringers, there’s a rich history of horror exploiting the potential for intuitive communication, conspiracy, loyalty, betrayal and creepiness in twins. The 10-year-old identical brothers at the center of Goodnight Mommy are a fine addition to that canon, even if the initial threat of evil has its source elsewhere.
Franz and Fiala kick off on a sly note with the most wholesome image of Austrian family togetherness, the Von Trapp children and their stepmother singing a sweet lullaby. The co-directors then jump to a bracing sequence set within the vivid green foliage of a cornfield, where Lukas and Elias (played by brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz) are in the midst of a vigorous game of tag. The sinister homemade animal mask worn by one of the boys sets up the disturbing recurring motif of hidden faces.
Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht‘s lush widescreen images of the surrounding woodlands, lake and fields, shot in heightened colors that practically sing, establish the isolation of the gorgeous setting. They also provide a sharp contrast with the ultramodern sleekness of the family retreat, a sterile showplace full of overpowering statement art, some of it a blurred representation of the lady of the house. This is no cozy cottage.
When the boys’ mother (Susanne Wuest) returns from extensive facial surgery — her bandaged head makes her look more mummy than Mommy — she seems a stranger to them. Where once she was affectionate, now she’s chilly and severe, snarling orders about the new house rules imposing silence, peace and semi-darkness while she recovers.
Brooding shots of her watching them from behind windows or doors, fractured glimpses of her reconstructed face, or simply a bloodshot eye in the mirror as she changes bandages all feed the audience’s suspicions as well as those of the boys. And the removal of every photograph of their father from the house hints there’s nobody to whom they can go with their doubts.
Childhood games figure throughout (the original title is the German-language equivalent of “I spy with my little eye …”), but loss of carefree innocence is the key theme. For the most part, the reactions of Lukas and Elias are not those of frightened kids but of cornered prey relying on animal cunning, and where necessary, savagery. The filmmakers manage to funnel a dark, dangerous energy even into seemingly fun, boisterous activities like the twins bouncing on a trampoline or running in the woods. Reality and paranoid fantasy begin to blur to mesmerizing effect, as their mother’s behavior grows increasingly erratic and the boys turn the tables.
There are plenty of variations on familiar horror tropes here, including some very nasty business with roaches, a graveyard tomb visit, telling nods to Catholicism, a standard childhood science experiment that becomes a torture method, jolting displays of Cronenbergian body horror and what looks like a Damien Hirst art installation involving a stray cat.
However, there’s also subtlety and sophistication in the way that Franz and Fiala, aided by editor Michael Palm, toy with audience expectations. The complex use of sound and disquieting music is effective at manipulating the mood within a highly charged atmosphere, alternating between propulsive suspense and transfixing shock, and between images of pastoral serenity with ugliness and violence. While there are echoes of Seidl’s work in the compositional formality, the sinuous, sometimes urgent movement of Gschlacht’s camera (the end credits close with “Shot on glorious 35mm”) demonstrates that the filmmakers have their own visual sensibility.
The story’s acceleration from anxiety to panic to hellish chaos is expertly managed, but more impressively, so is the control of internal narrative logic. As each piece of the puzzle gradually comes together, starting well into the film with the reason for the mother’s surgery, a mental replay of everything that’s happened up to that point makes consistent sense.
Well-timed appearances by minor characters from outside the family unit — the weirdo village sexton, the priest, a local farmer, two Red Cross charity collectors — add to the tension, as well as the subversive humor. But it’s the three terrific central performances that are crucial to Goodnight Mommy‘s effectiveness, not least in the way the boys appear to grow older, harder and more physically menacing as events progress. The intense concentration on primordial mother-child ties, their steady perversion and the psychological damage of withheld love makes this film riveting and visceral.
Production company: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion
Cast: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Hans Escher, Elfriede Schatz, Karl Purker, Georg Deliovsky, Christian Steindl, Christian Schatz, Erwin Schmalzbauer
Director-screenwriters: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Producer: Ulrich Seidl
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designers: Johannes Salat, Hubert Klausner
Costume designer: Tanja Hausner
Music: Olga Neuwirth
Editor: Michael Palm
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No rating, 99 minutes
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