Cinephilia: Goodnight Mommy is an unsettling psychological tragedy

Children need their mother’s love; mothers innately care for their children. With this double-edged sword, Goodnight Mommy terrorizes our minds by imagining a scenario where either a mother is neglectful, or a boy is unreceptive to his mother’s care. Finding out which one is the case provides Goodnight Mommy, the feature-length debut from Austrian filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, an ambiguous and horrifying thrust.

Elias and his twin brother, Lukas, both of whom are adorable seven-year-olds, live in a remote mansion surrounded by a picturesque landscape and a glistening lake. Their mother begins behaving erratically and viciously after a mysterious accident left her face disfigured; her visage now hides behind a white bandage that obscures her identity. The boys suspect that perhaps their mother has been abducted and replaced by an impersonator (cleverly, we’re told the mother used to be an actress), but when the mother takes off her bandage, revealing her face and identity, there is a shocking shift in perspective as the perpetrator becomes the victim and the innocent the guilty.

Contrary to almost every mainstream scare flick, Goodnight Mommy is almost entirely bolstered by its atmosphere and narrative, not loud noises or jump scares. The unsettling mansion, captured in dark contrast to the bright sun that glistens outside the house’s walls, is filled with hollow and lifeless objects: a mantel of female mannequins and photographs that capture imposingly out-of-focus people as their subjects.

Susanne Wuest, who plays the mother, gives a performance that is both creepy and tragic, and the twins, Lukas and Elias Schwarz, are similarly adorable and off-putting. The difficulty distinguishing the boys is, in hindsight, a subtle mask for a dazzling twist.

Because of Goodnight Mommy’s sleight of hand and powerful performances, we not only experience the film viscerally, but also contemplate it poignantly. The more you undress its layers, decoding its metaphors and symbols, the more apparent it becomes that cliches and tropes which have literally been overdone to death have in this film been reinvented in a mesmerizing art-horror hybrid. Goodnight Mommy feels like The Sixth Sense and The Omen by way of Funny Games, yet that hardly explains its unique melding of ambiguous storytelling and body horror.

You may have heard that this is one of the scarier horror films of recent years, and that would be correct, but what’s most surprising is that beneath the torture, violence, and scares is a psychological tragedy, a twisted psychodrama of grief and delusion. It’s not just a film with blood, guts, and creepy lullabies; Goodnight Mommy challenges the audience’s identification process.

One of the more compelling parallel images is the tribal mask Elias wears and the bandage which covers his mother’s face. Both are disguises, but where one hides sorrow, the other points to an evil you may not see lurking beneath the surface. A mother could be hiding a secret behind her bandaged pain, or maybe a cute face is the real mask.

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