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Goodnight Mommy

We have Austrians.  Handsome and blonde Austrians!  And they sing!  Goodnight Mommy begins in such a fashion, a large family (noticeably without father) singing Brahms' Lullaby, the lovely children in black velvet dresses and lederhosen.  At the conclusion of this doctored bit of graininess, a television show that probably never was, the mother bids us a tender, "Gute nacht."  At the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy, the film's main characters, a woman and her twin boys serenade us, arm in arm, with the German hymm, "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen."  Before you consider Goodnight Mommy for your next holiday film sing-along, know that there's actually very little song between those Austrian idylls that open and close the film.  And what transpires between is much closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than the family Von Trapp.  

In counterpoint to the fair-haired wholesomeness on display in Goodnight Mommy, there is quickly established an air of dread.  The twin boys, Elias and Lukas, disport around the countryside in their matching little sleeveless undershirts.  They play tag through a corn field, first seen from ground level.  When the perspective changes to overhead, the stalks look irate at their displacement and snap back into place as if intent on swallowing the children.  The brothers step across the alien, shifting clots of a bog as the browned earth moans and burps in response.  First one of the lads, then the other steps into an unlit tunnel.  One of them glides almost magically across the dark glass of a lake.  Significantly, as we await some awful occurrence in all of these situations where misfortune would seem to await the boys, the only name we hear called out is "Lukas."  

What's also evident through these first scenes of Goodnight Mommy is how effectively co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala capture and precisely utilize sound to enhance the building tension of their story.  

To our surprise, Elias and Lukas do return home unscathed.  Like the nearly unpeopled village into which they will later roam, their house seems to have been plopped down from another place, right on the verge of farm fields and forest.  It also looks like something out of an Austrian version of Dwell.  As we come to see the decidedly mod furnishings of this rural retreat, including clear acrylic hanging bubble chairs and artfully out-of-focus pictures bedecking the cold walls, it also looks like the sort of joint with which the people at Unhappy Hipsters could have a field day.  


Hipster or not, the woman presiding amidst this cool elegance is clearly not very happy herself.  When the boys arrive at her bedroom, somewhat dirtier for their endeavors, they find their mother standing in shadow so consistent with the first half or so of Goodnight Mommy, a semi-permanent twilight of drawn blinds.  When the robed figure turns to face them, the chilling image of a head wrapped in bandages atop that body emerges from the darkness and walks toward her sons with arms extended.  Not surprisingly, Elias and Lukas do not leap for the embrace of this forbidding figure, their yeux sans visage.  Instead, they regard her - not with fear, but with an almost malevolent skepticism.  "That's a fine hello," says their mother before admonishing them to get out of their dirty clothes. 

 What ensues in Goodnight Mommy is what co-director Veronika Franz has referred to in interview as "power games within families."  It is a power game or struggle in which the stern, slightly mummified mother would seem to hold the advantage, to be the heavy.

Given that the mother's face is wrapped through the early portion of Goodnight Mommy, obvious comparisons have been made to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.   Numerous comparisons to countryman Michael Haneke, particularly the director's Funny Games, have also been made.  Veronika Franz and her co-director Severin Fiala, don't cite any specific influence in the making of Goodnight Mommy.  They don't really see the connection to Haneke at all.  In its power struggle between an apparently single mother dealing with a fractious young son and its ultimate ambiguity as to whom is the most destructive member of the relationship, Goodnight Mommy actually has much in common with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014).      

There has been no more encouraging evidence in the past two years for the artistic viability of horror films - not to mention evidence that horror films can actually still be scary - than The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy.  It's no accident that both films have come from abroad, outside the conservative machine that is Hollywood.  And given that both films till the dark loam in which lies the more morbid aspects parenthood, it makes sense that each has been partially, if not totally informed by women.  Who, after all, has to deal with the obvious burden of child-bearing?  Who, more often than not, has to cope with most of the challenges to sleep and sanity those early years?  The sometime isolation and challenges to identity?  Even in youth or well into adulthood of the demanding offspring, the blame for frustrated expectations?  Sorry, mom.  

Both The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy visit that fevered part of the psyche where parenthood can seem like a life and death struggle, where everyday reversals can be distorted to the realm of dark opera.  In the The Babadook, it looks as though young Samuel Vanek (Noah Wiseman) is the problem, haunted by a monster (Mr. Babadook) and generally ruining his mother's life.  With Goodnight Mommy, the mother (Susanne Wuest) both looks and acts the part of villain, apparently cold and stern, her bearing and clothing (not to mention her headdress) as lacking in warmth as her manner.  In each case, the directors build and impressively maintain a sense of ambiguity through their films as to whom the real threat, the real monster is.  The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy just happen to see their young male characters wielding self-adapted weapons - a crossbow here, a kiddie rocket launcher there - as they mount their defense against foes supernatural or domestic.  What's unclear well into the proceedings of both films is who should be protected against whom.

Could you come back and freak out later, honey?
 Mommy needs some sleep.  Essie Davis in The Babadook.  
The ambiguity present in Goodnight Mommy involves a major twist that will fool most on first viewing.  To watch the film a second or third time is to appreciate how precisely Ms. Franz and Mr. Fiala have constructed their story.  The films plays a good deal and quite skillfully with matters if identity and absence. 

Elias and Lucas simply don't believe the woman behind the bandages is their mother.  For some reason, the mother will hardly acknowledge Lukas at all.  We don't know how the family has arrived at this particular state.  We don't know if the father is absent, divorced from the mother, or no longer living.  It is revealed late in the going that there was an accident at some point (another bit of common ground with The Babadook).  This, perhaps, why the mother is recovering from what would appear to have been plastic surgery.  Of course, we also discover she's something of a television presenter in Austria, so perhaps the surgery is part of the ubiquitous industry pressure to stay young, whatever the means.  

The mother's occupation is divulged during a moment of relative detente with the boys, as they all play a game of "I Spy."  This explains the German title of the film, which early flashes on the screen: "Ich Seh Ich Seh."  The game's first line apparently, "Ich seh, ich seh, was du siehst nicht" - "I see, I see, what you don't see."  A sticky note is affixed to one's forehead with an identity that is to be guessed by clues given by those who can see it.  The boys put the mother's own identity on her forehead, but even as they give more specific clues, she struggles to guess it is her.  Yet more damning evidence it would seem that the woman is not really the mother of Elias and Lucas.  

The truth lurks in Goodnight Mommy.  Unlike the would-be scary films regularly produced by Hollywood, it doesn't come springing out of some dark closet accompanied by a thundering sound effect in Dolby Surround, creating a fright that evaporates about as quickly as one's launched ass returns to the comfort of the theater seat.  It lurks.  This is a matter of patience, discipline and skill.  It's a crucial quality that was also demonstrated by another encouraging horror film of the past couple of years, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows. 

 The darkness, the truth, lurks close by Lukas and Elias, lost in their seemingly innocent games:  a very boyish burp-off in those bubble chairs; holding their breath underwater; bouncing on a trampoline.  It's something decidedly unholy lurking behind all the trappings and representatives of piety.  We see many such tokens in Goodnight Mommy:  the boys praying at an outdoor cross; a crucifix swinging from the rear-view mirror of the priest who returns them home after they have run away; votive candles standing a kind of sentry for the sleeping boys and later surrounding the mother at the film's climax.  The truth lurks beneath the bond of the mother and son, a bond that becomes unforgettably literal as it festers through Goodnight Mommy.  All of this like a lullaby much more likely to induce a nightmare than peaceful slumber.  

We see some vivid nightmares in Goodnight Mommy.  Franz and Fiala deal very effectively in images that have seemingly little to do with plot, but everything to do with mood, waking and sleeping.  As the relationship between the mother and sons grow more openly hostile, Elias dreams of walking into her room, cutting open her stomach and seeing large, ghastly beetles emerge.  We had earlier seen the twins place one of the bugs on her face while she slept, the insect eventually slipping into the sleeping woman's mouth.  The boys collect beetles, keeping them pullulating in an aquarium.  In a strong bit of foreshadowing, Elias burns one of the insects on a cement porch with a magnifying glass.   

Images of fire recur and the distinction between reality and nightmare blurs.  When the boys run away, we seem them in a field undergoing a controlled burn.  They step dangerously close to the section aflame while the man doing the work gestures furiously for them to get away.  Elias and Lukas step literally from another field right into an apparently nearby village whose streets are abandoned, save for a lone accordion player wailing like an infernal Tom Waits.  The line between the real and the imagined is typically diaphanous when the boys watch their frustrated mother leave the house one evening and stalk into the nearby forest.  Over the verdant bed, among the black trunks she winds, ultimately stripping.  When the camera comes round for a frontal view , we see the face whipping horribly fast, a screaming blur.  

The apparent nightmares, the fanciful images, help to further the sense of dread in Goodnight Mommy.  Ultimately, the film finds its horror in very real things.  Elemental expressions predominate, start to finish.  There is fire, there is water.  The latter in the boys sport, floating and submerging to hold their breath.  They later remove the beetles from the aquarium, fill it with water and leave a dead cat submerged in the tank.  This a message to their mother, whom they believed killed the cat they earlier found in some sort of ossuary (the traipse across the piled bones yet another opportunity for Franz and Fiala to exploit sound in the crunch of those bones under foot).  When the boys won't come out and face her, the mother dumps a jar of the beloved beetles into the water to drown.  Did that accident that is mentioned in the film's closing moments involve drowning?  Did it involve fire?  Perhaps.  Does a horrible, elemental expression occur at the climax of Goodnight Mommy?  Well, yes.  

Franz and Fiala maintain the sense of ambiguity because we ultimately see the bad behavior of the boys and their mother from the other's perspective.  Like any power struggle, any war, the combatants are sometimes at their worst, regardless of who might ultimately be the greater victim.  

Beyond her severe appearance, we see several examples of less than ideal motherhood early on.  There is little warmth for the twins, none at all for poor Lukas.  When the mother pours some orange drink for Elias, he says, "Lukas wants some too."  "The he can ask me himself," is the cold response.  Lukas is ignored while the mother tears apart the boys room, searching for some sort contraband.  She is upset to find a lighter, much as she doesn't discover the cat whose box has been pushed under the bunk beds.  Finally, Elias defiantly claps his hands in his mother's face and she pins him smotheringly to the bed.

When the bandages finally come off, both the mother's dress and manner are transformed.  Gone is the almost masculine togs that had accompanied the facial bandages.  She appears in a blue dress, hair done up, makeup applied.  "Are we friends again," she asks, smiling.  

Sorry, mom.  By the time the mother emerges from her bandages and personal darkness, she has lost her sons.  None of the evidence seems to jibe.  The face isn't quite the same as before.  When the boys consult a photo album, they see the picture of their mother's friend who looks more like the woman claiming to be their mother than the one they've always known.  Elias and Lukas play a recording of their mother singing "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen." as they go to sleep one night.  But when they ask their mother at a crucial juncture what is Lukas favorite song, she can't come up with the right one.  "We want our mom back," they demand.  "You're not our mom....Show us your birthmark."  Bad news indeed when the birthmark is found to be impermanent.  

Like lesser-known versions of the folklore gathered and told by the Brothers Grimm, the simple story of Goodnight Mommy does not shy from dark themes and darker action when the time comes.  There is more bad behavior.   There is blood.  And there is worse.  Without revealing too much of the mayhem, suffice it to say that super glue is found to have even greater utility than previously imagined.  Ah, the ties that bind.  And bind.  

So maybe having kids wasn't such a good idea after all.  Elias
and Lukas Schwarz in Goodnight Mommy.

But not to worry.  The principles gather in a field at film's end, the boys having emerged from the corn a last time.  The moon is full.  They sing.  The mother knows which song to sing this time.  All are smiling.  Even as silence prevails at hymn's end, the ideal Austrian family smiles into the camera.  

There's a great upward whoosh of sparks, a last breath of fire, when the frame finally darkens.  A Lynchian coda if there ever was one.  As David Lynch has done with such chilling effectiveness in several of his films, peeling back a sense American wholesomeness like a concealing skin, first time directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala do with their own cultural heritage, which includes, by their own reckoning, an unwillingness to face difficult truths, political or personal.  Let the diseased family stand for any larger metaphors in Goodnight Mommy.  Let the fire burn.  So long, you and you and you!  



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