Directed by: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz.
Written by: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala.
Starring: Susanne Wuest (Mother), Lukas Schwarz (Lukas), Elias Schwarz (Elias), Elfriede Schatz (Red Cross Collector #1), Karl Purker (Red Cross Collector #2).
The two names to spring to my mind when I think of current Austrian cinema are Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl – two filmmakers who have been accused of having a cold detachment to their films and their characters and for including things in their films merely for shock value. That’s been true of both filmmakers at times – although I think Haneke has escaped that in many of his films, it’s hard to deny it’s true for a film like Funny Games (either version) – and is true for all of the Seidl’s films that I have seen. Seidl is a producer of Goodnight Mommy – the debut horror film by Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz – and that doesn’t shock me. The film is expertly directed – icy cold and detached from much of its running time, the directors do an amazing job of building tension throughout the film – a feat even more impressive when you consider they don’t use music to artificially goose the tension, and almost the entire movie happens in the daylight. Yet, the last third of the movie dives headlong into cruel, sadistic behavior in a way that I’m not sure the film entirely earns. It feels more than a little cheap, as if the film is just trying to shock, without any real reason why. There is a difference between making something scary, and making something stomach churningly disgusting – something some filmmakers do not understand. The sad thing for me is that the first hour of the film is so good, that it’s disappointing to see the film take the easy way out in the end.
The film takes place entirely in and around and isolated house in the middle of the Austrian countryside. Living there are twin boys, around 12, Lukas and Elias (real like twins Lukas and Eliaz Schwarz), and a woman (Susanne Wuest) with a heavily bandaged face who insists that she is their mother, even though the boys remain unconvinced. The boys have an unhealthy attachment to each other – and do everything together. Their mother has started to favor Elias over Lukas, but Elias watches out for Lukas. The film is kind of like watching a ping pong match, as our sympathies and allegiances fly back and forth between the kids and the woman – all of whom are capable of cruelty and kindness, as the film withhold information that will setup the disgusting climax of the film. The film may well have worked better for me had it not been clear from pretty much the first scene just what information it was withholding – in fact, I found the “twist” so obvious that I just assumed that the film going to twist off in another direction entirely, which sadly it never did.
Still, the film works for the first hour of its running time, gradually building the tension, and letting us know that in this family, no one is psychologically sound. The film really did remind me of Haneke’s earlier films as it builds towards it climax. There is even an element of dark humor running beneath much of the film – in particular a sequence where two very forward Red Cross workers show up collecting for charity, and the boys have to get them to go away, without arousing suspicion.
The film takes a turn into the sadistic in the last act is both expected and disappointing. Foreign horror films are often a tough sell in theaters, but Goodnight Mommy has been building buzz on the festival circuit for a year now, and is actually getting a theatrical release rather than the straight to home viewing market where these types of extreme horror films normally exist. These closing scenes do, precisely, what the directors want them to do – they make the audience queasy, and want to look away from the screen, while at the same time unable to. The physical cruelty on display is greater than the psychological cruelty of the rest of the film, and is almost too much to bare. When I see a film like Goodnight Mommy, with this sort of cruelty, I always ask if the movie really earns this level of violence and cruelty. I don’t object to being put through the ringer like this, but I do feel that when a movie does this, there should be a reason for it. Haneke always does have a reason – his reason may be insulting and stupid, as it was with Funny Games, where he says the movie is essentially a test, and those who pass turn it off, and those who don’t watch to the end – but there is in fact a reason. What is the reason behind it in Goodnight Mommy? I’m at a loss.
I do think there is a lot of skill on display in the film – and the film has haunted me since seeing it a few days ago. But the sadism of the final act isn’t what stays in my mind – it’s everything that leads up to it. The saddest thing about Goodnight Mommy isn’t that it’s a bad film – it isn’t - but that it’s not a great film, because it really could have been. But the filmmakers took the easy way out – going extreme, when something more subtle could have been even more shocking.