Screening at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival (Miff: Night Shift) is Goodnight Mommy. The Austrian film is directed and written by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, a multi-skilled duo also adept in screenwriting, producing and editing.
Goodnight Mommy can be described as a physiological horror film. It has the tension of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), where similarly, a bourgeois household is terrorised. It has the feeling of helplessness like Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and even the mystery of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, where the true horror lies in a person’s identity being covered up. These are just some of the elements making up the general texture here, creating a not-fit-into-any-old-horror mould.
Goodnight Mommy is deliberate but minimal nonetheless, the sort of narrative where the less mentioned the better and where building the tension is of key focus.
The story is told from Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas’ (Lukas Schwarz) point of view. They are twins who live in a big lonesome house in the countryside. A lot of time is spent playing, fossicking and exploring outside. When their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home, fun finds its way out the door. Without even knowing her character’s name we learn that mother has been involved in a serious accident, resulting in her face fully bandaged up. Her eyes and mouth are the only things exposed. There is not much insight as to what has happened, but as far as Elias and Lukas are concerned, she has changed. Along with stricter rules and chores, guests are not allowed into the house, a factor mother puts down to helping her recovery process.
Contrasting this sparse narrative is heaver symbolism. Fiala and Franz really illustrate their characters and pin point what this environment could mean. You see organic, handcrafted objects that the boys play with, but you also see these same objects as weaponry. In another scenario, you see pet bugs. When you contextualise this, what do these bugs represent? In a surreal horror sense, the associations of death and decay or metamorphism are a common way of expressing character transformation. This is the sort of semiotics and representations Goodnight Mommy asks for as it directs the narrative to its logical explanation.
However, when you think you have got Goodnight Mommy figured out, it heads into horror’s sub-genre, ‘torture-porn’. When you compare the imagery prior, this direction seems excessive and out of place given the general ambience of the film. You could argue that the torture genre, compared to artistic horror, is ‘low-brow’. Usually, I tend to agree. However, the violence here has impact. Instead of using heavy-duty machinery for a trained sadistic audience, the devices are relatable and homely. Super glue and craft scissors are used, but in the vilest way. It’s uncomfortable and confronting, changing the way you would normally look at these objects. It also brings horror into the home, adding social commentary and anxiety to what could be conceivable.
It is really hard to discuss Goodnight Mommy without spoiling it, but from the opening sequence to the closing, this is a very bleak, yet beautiful film. With its no fuss approach and little dialogue, characters are both clear and fuzzy, challenging audience perceptions. Sometimes things don’t seem to add up, but all the clues are well connected. Goodnight Mommy is elegantly timed and thorough, with a narrative that knows how to get its feelings across, as long as it’s shown to the right crowd.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10