Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)
The original German title for “Goodnight Mommy” is “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” or “I see, I see,” which is ironic since I didn’t see the film’s central conceit. Near the end, when it’s revealed, I went, “Holy shit.” Long pause. “Right.” Longer pause. “Of course.”
It’s a moody, atmospheric film that’s majorly fucked up. I flashed early to “Lord of the Flies,” thinking that, of the twin boys, the more favored one, Elias, was like Ralph, the benevolent leader, while the one with mommy problems, Lukas, was Jack, who appeals to our worst instincts. Which one would dominate? I also wondered this early on: Who’s really in danger here—the mother (Susanne Wuest) or the kids (Elias and Lukas Schwarz)? From the conversation surrounding the movie, not to mention its trailer, not to mention the poster, I assumed the mother would become menaced. But she’s so awful in the early going, I began to doubt this.
The key is in one of the first conversations with the mother. Playing outside in cornfields (cf. “Children of the Corn”), the boys come home to find their mother with her head bandaged from an operation. Was she in an accident? Did she have plastic surgery? She’s curt, demands quiet and darkness. She keeps pulling the blinds. The boys’ clothes are muddy and she demands they strip near the laundry and take a shower. Then she feeds them. We see her pouring a glass of juice for Elias, and we get this conversation:
Elias: Lukas wants some, too.
Mother: Then he can ask me himself.
Elias: You only made supper for me.
Mother: You know why.
[Mother goes away; Lukas drinks the juice.]
Elias to Lukas: You should apologize.
[Lukas shakes head.]
That’s the key right there, and I’m stunned I didn’t see it. It helps, of course, that in English, and I assume in German, the singular and plural form of “you” is the same. I don’t know how they’ll translate this in China, for example, where the language differentiates: ni for you and ni-men for all of you.
The mother seems like an awful person—harsh and brittle. She doesn’t want visitors. “If anyone asks,” she explains, “tell them I’m ill.” Putting ointment on her damaged face, she shoots an accusatory bloodshot eye at one of the boys. (It helps, too, that we keep mixing up the boys.) When someone actually stops by, and one of the boys pads gently into her room to wake her, she pretends to be asleep; when he leaves, she crunches harshly on the snack she’d been hiding in her mouth. It was at this point that I wondered if the boys were in danger from her.
Some horror films are relentless throughout; the point is to exhaust us (“It Follows” is a good example). Others are often supernatural mysteries to be solved (“El Orfanato,” “The Others”). This one has a bit of mystery, but it’s mostly looming dread. We wonder two things: 1) When will it get bad?; 2) How bad will it get?
We realize, bit by bit, there was an accident, and a marital separation, and the mother is trying to start over. This humanizes her in our eyes. At the same time, the boys begin to feel that the mother isn’t their mother. They have nightmares about her; they begin to demonize her. It’s a clean cross: The more human she seems to us, the more demonic to them.
Eventually they tie her to her bed, ask questions, demand that she prove she’s their mother. She’s an idiot for not responding immediately and authoritatively, but she doesn’t. They demand to know where her birthmark went (it was on her face, and got lost in the accident), so, with a magnifying glass, and the sun from the nearby window, they try to burn one in. When she cries, the put masking tape over her mouth. Later they glue her mouth shut with superglue. It’s all so horrible. She fails at her one chance at escape, and wakes to find herself glued the ground, one eye glued horribly shut. And it’s here that we get the big reveal. This is what she says to Elias:
I’ll play along. I’ll talk to Lukas again. Lukas will be alive. [Pause] Elias. It’s not your fault that Lukas died.
But it’s too late by that point.
Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz open their film with footage of a happy mother and children singing on TV, a la the Von Trapps. We’re in rural Austria, after all. But it’s a different rural Austria. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night. Mommy.