Goodnight Mommy (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is something innately terrifying and sinister about the plot of “Goodnight Mommy,” written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, because it involves two boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who come to suspect that their mother is not really their mother after she comes home from the hospital, her head covered in bandages after having undergone facial surgery. Couple such a plot with a clinical manner of directing and what results is an unnerving thriller-mystery that occasionally offers small but genuine moments of horror.
The woman (Susanne Wuest) whose face is covered in bandages informs the boys of the new rules to be followed. The house must be absolutely quiet because she needs rest. No visitors are allowed. If a stranger appears on the front door, he or she is to be told that mother is ill. The blinds must remain closed at all times. The boys are allowed to play only in the garden. Clearly, these new rules force Lukas and Elias to wonder about certain possibilities. From observing their reactions, one may conclude that their mother—their real mother—does not rule the house with an iron hand. They become convinced that the woman in their home is an impostor.
The picture is shot beautifully, especially the scenes involving nature. Lukas and Elias live next to a farm and this gives them the freedom to frolic and explore. Particular standouts include the opening shot of the siblings running through a corn field and entering a dark cave, a scene where the boys jump on the trampoline as it rains, and when the two share a nightmare of a woman running through the forest. Equally strong are the controlled, geometric, and polished decor of scenes that take place indoors.
We vacillate between one minute being utterly convinced that the woman is an impersonator and the next minute wondering whether she really is the boys’ real mother. This is because the film is constantly evolving even though there are very few overtly dramatic sequences. We feel certain or tend to question due to certain lines uttered or looks given. We wonder what the boys are thinking as they consider potential solutions to their situation. Sometimes their unvocalized questions line up with our own. For instance, does a loving, patient parent hit her child for no good reason and lock her children in a room with limited access to food, water, and the restroom?
Casting twins with no experience in front the camera is the right decision. Lukas and Elias do not seem to be acting at all, especially when they engage in play, which is highly necessary given that the material, in a way, is about perspectives. Because they are so natural, we get a genuine sense of their isolation which amplifies the horror of possibly sharing a roof with a stranger who intends to do harm.
“Ich seh, ich seh” is about seeing what is presented to the audience and evaluating whether to buy it completely or take it with a grain of salt. The literal translation of the German title is “I See, I See” and it is a version of the children’s game “I Spy.” After the film, the clever dark irony of the play on words should be apparent.