Mom Without a Face: Fiala/Franz’s Fiction Debut a Mesmerizing Slice of Psychological Horror
Once you’re made aware that Goodnight Mommy is the fictional directorial debut from directing tandem Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (partner to and writer of the works of Ulrich Seidl). A delightfully perverse purveyor of Austrian social dysfunction, you’ll know to expect something kind of twisted and bizarre. Fiala/Franz certainly delivers with an eerie portrait of identical twin horror that will eventually rank as one of the more notable titles in the slim subgenre. Effectively grotesque and downright chilling by the time it spits out its final frames, Franz unleashes her own brand of sinister familial interactions that proves to surpass even Seidl’s cynical worldview.
In the isolated Austrian countryside, nine-year-old twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live alone with their mother (Susanne Wuest). Recently, she’s undergone cosmetic surgery, her face completely bandaged as she attempts to recover peacefully in their quiet home. No mention is made of where their father currently is, but we learn that mom is featured on a local television station, which would explain her current state. But her sons are becoming increasingly leery of her as she seems prone to upset and mild violent abuse, perhaps even favoring one of the boys over the other. Paging through old pictures of their mother, where all semblance of dad has been removed, they spy a picture of her with another woman that looks identical, only furthering their paranoia that she’s been replaced by a stranger. Collecting cockroaches in a fish tank and hiding a mangy stray cat under the bed only fosters more tension between them.
Beginning with a set-up that recalls Franju’s classic Eyes Without a Face, Franz and Fiala (nephew to Seidl) strike an ominous tone of brooding unease from the opening frames. The lonesome countryside, which shows the boys emerging from a field of corn into the sterility of their mother’s isolated home, we understand that she’s recently undergone some type of plastic surgery, which seems normal considering her occupation as a local television personality. Her children don’t quite seem to understand this, and are convinced that her increasingly erratic and violent behavior towards them means she is an imposter.
The setting, locale, and eventual terrorization will perhaps put one in mind of Haneke’s Funny Games, or even The White Ribbon, films that dwell on the breeding ground of monsters and how they’re nurtured. But as it reveals its more delicious twists, you’ll most likely be reminded of classic English language titles, such as De Palma’s Sisters or Cronenberg’s Dead Ringer. But most of all, considering we’re dealing with children, Fiala/Franz’s film recalls the vintage delight of 1972’s The Other, based on a famed Thomas Tryon novel, directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Uta Hagen.
Fiala/Franz also culls distinctive and arresting performances from the child actors, Elias and Lukas Schwarz—one only has to compare them to the leaden leads of another twin-centric release, The Notebook, an excellent film hampered by the wooden performances of its actors.
The title should be a nice calling card for Susanne Wuest, here a character that undergoes extremities that would surely make Haneke himself cringe. Her angular, glaringly white home may be sheik, but it induces a state of near paralytic discomfort from the moment we enter it, huge portraits of faded out, indiscernible female figures hanging on the wall, hammering home the motif of being hidden or unformed, empty shells of people drifting like ghosts through a stark environment.
Whenever we wander out of doors, Martin Gshlacht’s cinematography takes on a striking importance, thrusting us into the thick foliage of the ominous woods, or reflecting wide open expanses of endless fields. It’s as sinister as it is broodingly gorgeous. Gruesome and increasingly disquieting in ways that English language efforts seem increasingly unable to master, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz prove to be exciting directors in her own right and, best of all, you won’t forget how mommy gets put to bed.
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Vanguard Programme. 100 Minutes