Separation Anxiety: On Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy

in 55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

Mommy (Susanne Wuest) comes home from the hospital with her head completely wrapped in bandages, rendering her a mummy-mommy, two hard eyes without a face, perhaps a body without a soul, or at least the right soul. Is it really Mommy in there? Her twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwartz), are wondering. Mommy isn’t acting like herself. She’s short-tempered and demands absolute silence. She isn’t as kind or fun to be around as she once was, andshe seems to want to keep Elias and Lukas apart. The bandages eventually come off and this woman who says she’s Mommy looks, in it happens, exactly like Mommy, but it’s then that the boys become only more certain that they’re living with an impostor. Perhaps Mommy also has a twin — an evil twin. As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we’re in the realm of pure seemingness: nothing is more terrifying than perfect replicas, than what appears to be familiar but is in fact foreign.

“Goodnight Mommy” is essentially a three-hander, set in and around a tasteful modern house tucked away in some Austrian wood near a village so sleepy it could be a ghost town. Nearly everything in Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s chilling first fiction feature (they previously directed the documentary Kern) assumes subtly ghostly hues; the film shifts between reality, fantasy and dream without clear demarcation. Franz (a long-time collaborator of Ulrich Seidl, who produced Goodnight Mommy) and Fiala have stated that they were inspired by reality shows about surgical makeovers in which the subjects inevitably come home to the welcoming arms of their families. Wouldn’t at least some of those family members feel alienated by the sight of their metamorphosed loved-ones?

Every detail in this elegantly crafted horror film has been calibrated to turn the screws at exactly the right intervals. There arequietly eerie visions of bucolic serenity, such as the scene in which the boys walkin the dusty wake of a thrasher. The gorgeously photographed 35mm imageryat times invokes the doll-like disquiet of Dutch photographer Helen van Meene. At other times there is a deliberate obscuring of things: the out-of-focus life-size full-body portrait (of Mommy?) that hangs on a living room wall, or the sight of one of the boys hiding behind a bevelled screen, visible only as a phantom-like silhouette. There’s a striking contrast between the immaculate, smooth-surfaced country home, dimly glowing with warm, diffused sunlight through the daytime, and the grotesquery that accumulates throughout “Goodnight Mommy”: the enormous roaches the boys collect and creatively deploy in their torture strategies to out Fake-mommy; the unfortunate cat who becomes the subject of an art-object reminiscent of the sculptures of Damien Hirst; the mounds of bones that occupy the mass grave in which the boys find that cat in one of the film’s most fascinating and mysterious passages. Everything repulsive in Goodnight Mommy is also alluring: whatever generates disgust represents liberation from repression, silenced mourning, containment, “good” behaviour. We are in the upper echelons of body horror, where what is most alive resides in what is most morbid.

Twinning, co-dependency, the way one’s identity can become tied to the gaze of another: for all its strangeness Goodnight Mommy (don’t ask me why there’s no apostrophe in the title) boasts an impressive thematic coherence. The boys operate as an almost single entity; one’s experience of the world only valid when the other experiences it too, and Evil-mommy’s attempts to separate them constitutes the greatest threat to their wellbeing. Even the film’s original German title — Ich Seh, Ich Seh — is a doubling of sorts, and that doubling extends to the meta-level, since Goodnight Mommy is the product of that still rare thing: a directorial duo. So let’s make sure nothing separates Franz and Fiala. I wouldn’t want to subject them to such trauma as befalls Elias and Lukas. And I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

José Teodoro