Goodnight Mommy – Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (2015)

The original German title of Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh, Ich seh, the meaning of which you might be able to deduce even if you don’t know German. That title, while cloying, also serves as a key to the film, and so is more fitting than the rather generic renaming; all the same, if you can decode the punny reference the German title is making, you can pretty much skip seeing the movie, as you’ll already know the outcome. Yes, Goodnight Mommy is about as derivative as they get. What’s more, like in an M. Knight Shyamalan film (but without any of the bumptious stabs at poetry to make up for its faults), the meaning of Goodnight Mommy hinges on a “twist” ending, a revelation that is supposed to answer questions, but instead only leaves us questioning the point of the whole enterprise. Like last year’s The Babadook, this is “psychological” horror, which effectively means that the scares are going to tickle your cerebrum and not twitch your death nerve. At least in that film, ham handedly managed though it was, the director tried for a level of allegorical content which vainly attempted to pull the tale from the grip of irrelevance. Sadly, the makers of Goodnight Mommy have no such desires – they tell their little (oft-told) tale straight, with no chasers of emotion or humanity. The style is Haneke, but it is like a Xerox of that master’s austere playbook. Since there is no point to seeing the film at all if you already know the ending (except, as the New York Times seriously suggested, to fact check the story’s logic), I will spare a spoiler. Here is the thusly reduced synopsis: two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live in a modernist house in semi-rural Austria. Our story begins with the return of Mom (Susanne Wuest), wrapped in bandages as she has just had plastic surgery. The kids seem leery of Mom, and think she is an impostor, or changed by her surgery. And she seems unbalanced; often cold and angry, she treats one of the twins with rough, grudging love, and ignores the other one completely – she won’t address him, won’t feed him. Mom seems to get more and more extreme as time goes on as the boys (or rather, the favored twin) question her more strenuously on what her problem is. We do see pics of Mom from earlier in her life, and she does not look much changed by the surgery, but we must agree she does act weird. But weird enough for the boys, feeling threatened, to whittle some wooden arrows for their “toy” crossbow? As you might expect, eventually the boys feel threatened and alienated enough by Mom that they tie her to her bed, and get to the bottom of things. Sorry Mom.

If you are familiar with The Other, Robert Mulligan’s sadly little known film of 1972, you know this film, and how it goes. The Other was true psychological horror, as it made us inhabit and identify with the protagonist to a degree that when the horror of his mind is understood, we feel it, and can both sympathize and shudder – our identification works like a mirror, and we cannot turn away, as to do so would be to deny ourselves. Goodnight Mommy is like a twist film procedural – it takes the alienated portrayals of early Haneke, adds a “creepy” gotcha, and, like an experiment, examines what the resulting aesthetic is like. For if there is enjoyment within this film, it is within the aesthetic. What we watch unfold is seen as if from outer space, or underwater – it might fascinate us, but it is too distant to move us. I can see that the Times might have a point, though, as perhaps watching the film knowing the outcome in advance would humanize Mom and make her fate more affecting, or make the twins creepier. At the same time, there are only so many hours left in my life, and an inversely proportional amount of movies in the world. Save yourself $14.75 (Angelika is a harsh mistress) and watch The Other instead.

One and a half stars out of five

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