The stealthiness of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala‘s “Goodnight Mommy,” which creeps around making the noise of someone trying to make no noise, is a good parallel for the sort of life the film has had since its Venice premiere: quietly building both arthouse buzz and picking up genre admirers while it makes the festival rounds. Catching up to it at its Karlovy Vary International Film Festival berth this week, it’s easy to see what the fuss is about: it’s a resonant, atmospheric horror film that treats its genre and its audience with unusual respect, before escalating in its last moments to a brilliantly uncompromised finale. This is deserving of special mention because in walking the line between indie/arthouse and genre, like David Robert Mitchell‘s “It Follows,” for example, or even something like “The Babadook,” which in themes of the potential monstrousness of motherhood more closely parallels “Goodnight Mommy,” there is often the potential for a weaker third act, where resolution requires a lessening of mystery/fear. But here, if anything, the final act is the strongest, (it’s certainly the sickest), and after a pleasantly shivery beginning, may send you out into the night searching for the flesh that has somehow crept off your bones.
Impeccably crafted, with a chilly, crisp sheen to the photography from DP Martin Gschlacht and extremely precise sound design, the film largely takes place in a single modernist house somewhere in the Austrian countryside. Co-director Franz is a regular writing collaborator with Ulrich Seidl (in fact, she’s married to him), and he is a producer here, so there’s definitely a feel of shared DNA with recent Seidl films (especially the terrific “In The Basement,” which was co-written by Franz and also shot by Gschlacht). More fundamentally, the sensibility feels similar, a kind of unheimlich, dispassionate, coolly assessing vibe: an investigation of dissociative behavior that, if it finds a place in which to flourish, can bloom into all-out insanity, while retaining a strict logic from within. That place is the basement in “In the Basement,” but in “Goodnight Mommy” it’s located in another freakishly uncanny secret space (all apologies to anyone who’s ever shared a womb): the relationship between two identical twin brothers.
Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz) play in their large, well-appointed house (one of the things the film evokes is how unconsciously well a child knows the nooks and crannies and quirks of his childhood home), and in the countryside outside — high fields of corn, odd bouncy marshland, rocks and caves. They are passing time till the return of their mother (Susanne Wuest), which, when it happens, is strangely anticlimactic: she is undemonstrative and un-motherly toward them. Oh, and her face is entirely swathed in bandages following a recent round of surgery — we pick up hints it may have been either cosmetic or reconstructive.
As time passes, Elias and Lukas grow continually more certain that the woman underneath the bandages is not their mother, and start to find evidence to support that: a photograph in an album, a missing mole, a wrongly remembered favorite song. But in the believable way that sometimes the most important familial intrigues are the ones that remain unspoken between the family members involved, she is frustratingly reluctant to come clean, and sometimes dismissive, sometimes violent, in her reactions to their childish prying. Retreating more toward each other, progressing through phases of distrust, petty spite, and finally total certainty, they must find a way, however nasty, to force her to tell the truth.
There is a recent trauma obliquely referenced, and the childrens’ father is pointedly absent. Indeed, its empty spaces, the minimalist decor of the home, and the quietness of the soundtrack combine to make us feel the presence of absence very cleverly: it’s as much a film about what is missing as what is there. The editing is stellar in this regard too, with scenes often cutting on an unanswered question, sometimes literally, sometimes visually as someone looks off camera at something and we never get the reverse shot that tells us what’s there. It’s a film where the ideas are most plentiful and inventive in the micro, rather than the macro.
In fact, it’s the macro picture, the workings of the twists and kinks of the plot, that is probably the least impressive aspect of the movie. You get the impression of the cart leading the horse a little in that Flack and Fiala have so many intelligent filmmaking ideas, they’re content to employ a serviceable plot to hang them on, rather than finding any particular original spin on the story itself. This may lead those of us familiar with the various conventions and twists of modern horror to unlock a few too many of the film’s secrets before we’re quite meant to.
But what “Goodnight Mommy” perhaps lacks in “gotcha!” surprise, it makes up for in unnerving, elegantly ratcheting creepiness. Deliberately unexplained and unremarked-on ellipses in time keep us disoriented and unmoored from the hard feel of reality. And so the film takes on the quality of a nightmare, but not one of those with monsters and lava and naked public speaking — it’s the kind of nightmare where you’re looking for something you need but you can’t remember what it is, and where, turning a corner, you walk into a wall because you expect a door to be where it isn’t.
It was Haneke, of course, who established the New Austrian Chilliness, with Seidl bringing a dose of dry social satire into the mix, and here Franz and Fiala nudge that aesthetic further along the scale toward genre. While it may not have the ferocious intellectualism of a Haneke film, nor the social agenda of a Seidl, nor the wholly gross-out excess of classic genre horror, this heady stew of references and notions, which borrows elements from haunted house, body dysmorphia, maternal paranoia, and torture porn movies, does have a very similar Austrian vein of ruthlessness running through it. The story simply goes farther than expected, and for the first time, in the finale, after all those cleverly cut scenes that feel like they finish before they’re quite “done,” “Goodnight Mommy” delivers one you get to watch all the way through to the bitterest of ends. It’s a high compliment the film’s horror cred to say that you might not want to, though if you’re the right kind of disturbed yourself (guilty!), it might also have you grinning at its sheer audacity. [B]