Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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SEVERIN FIALA, VERONIKA FRANZ: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014)

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SUSANNE WUEST IN GOODNIGHT MOMMY

Twins want their mommy

The Austrian film Goodnight Mommy is chilly, strange, and elegant. It's classy, even upper-class, horror. It all takes place at an expensive and original modern house somewhere out in the country (though not too far out to be visited by donation collectors from the Red Cross). It's also a film that's hauntingly ambiguous all the way through. Somebody is deluded, but who? We never really learn for sure. Perhaps it's not "so much weird as just plain disturbing," which was something that Mike D'Angelo, writing for The Dissolve from Toronto, said of the film. His report was how I first heard about this intriguing, if perhaps ultimately a little disappointing film. It's also in its final stages a nauseating film, one almost unbearable to watch, as may befit a product from the workshop, so to speak, of Ulrich Seidl, since Veronika Franz has repeatedly been his writing collaborator, and Seidl produced here.

In Goodnight Mommy there are two nine-year-old blond twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) and their mother (Susanne Wuest). But is she their mother? She initially appears at the house, apparently after an operation, with her face bandaged like the masked heroine of Eyes Without a Face. To us, she is scary and strange. She's observed by Elias and Lukas fearfully, from a distance. At first she seems to avoid them, behaving furtively and insisting she requires rest and absolute quiet. To them she appears very strange, but also some of her behavior that we see but the boys don't is suspicious and may show her involved in deception. These mysteries are never resolved. When she begins interacting with Elias and Lukas more, she is mean to them, punishing them and restricting them, actually refusing ever to speak to Elias.

This is not the way they remember their mother behaving with them. They begin to doubt that she is their mother as she purports to be. The boys' own behavior begins to be increasingly bizarre, though always within a play world realm of little boys with the incestuous complicity of identical twins living in an isolated place. As D'Angelo puts it, "For a good long while, mere creepiness reigns." "But," he adds, "my screening saw multiple walkouts during the finale, which takes a sudden turn into prolonged torture. . ." This is as much perhaps as one should say about the direction the movie takes.

It's arguable that the Goodnight Mommy , while starting out extremely well, deteriorates from reel to reel. That nothing is ever quite as good thereafter as in its stylish, creepy, haunting opening shots. That it is less good but still original and fresh focused on the boys while the "mere creepiness" gathers. And that when the torture begins and the flashy ending comes, Fiala and Franz have moved into more conventional territory.

Still this is a horror film that is both classier and nastier than the majority of the genre, while for good and for ill avoiding most of the standard grabber devices of such films. It's not out of place to be reminded of Yorgos Lanthimos of Dogtooth: there's something conceptual and stylish going on here. (I now find Peter Debruge writing from Venice in Variety calls this "A fairy tale for Dogtooth enthusiasts." He also mentions Haneke's Funny Games.) I like the boys in bright homemade masks. I like their play with beetles. I like their frolicking -- and jumping on a big circular trampoline -- in a heavy rainstorm. I like the very stylish modern house, one so distinctive in design and decor and artwork that a series of photographs of its exterior and interiors can be found, as the boys do find them, on the internet. As the Toronto Festival blurb put it, "the family's home resembles a monumental tomb — a chillingly perfect setting for the film's story of familial disintegration."

The New Directors blurb reveals underlying themes when it starts out, "The dread of parental abandonment is trumped by the terror of menacing spawn." Now too much has been given away. But as in any good cinema, any narrative art, it is not the "what" but the "how," the style of the work, that makes it significant. This is quite a rich piece of work. Its content and subject matter mean Mommy will best appeal only to certain connoisseurs, but in the field of art house horror Fiala and Franz are clearly names to watch for in future.

Goodnight Mommy, 100 mins., debuted at Venice, showing at over a dozen other international festivals. Screened for this review as part of the March, 2015 edition of FSLC and MoMA's New Directors/New Films series. A US RADiUS-TWC release.

US theatrical release at 3 venues NYC, Nuart LA, Fri. 11 September 2015. TRAILER.

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ELIAS AND LUKAS SCHWARZ IN GOODNIGHT MOMMY

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