“She’s not our mom”
It’s difficult to tell if Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz‘s Ich seh, Ich seh [Goodnight Mommy] fails at hiding its secret or if I’ve simply watched too many psychological thrillers to stop myself from breaking through their subterfuge for the truth. Either way, I knew what was happening about ten minutes into the film. I blame my not understanding German and thusly reading subtitles—losing the nuance of unencumbered viewing devoid of the text constantly stealing my attention and giving pause. The way Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) interact with their mother (Susanne Wuest) is too strange and too exacting to not be purposeful in its orchestration. But even with the mystery yet to be revealed ruined, I remained completely ignorant towards their subsequent journey’s maliciousness.
On the surface it’s all a matter of emotionally heightened children’s imaginative flights of fancy. In this case its ten-year old twins Lukas and Elias questioning the identity of the bandaged woman who enters their home. With only her eyes and voice unfiltered from disguise, the boys must focus on her actions and attitude instead of appearance to discern if she is their mother. Her becoming angry enough to ignore one due to an unseen transgression and slap the other as she forces him to repeat the words, “I will not listen to my brother” doesn’t help her case since the children never knew her to be so cruel. For whatever reason she pushes them away, building invisible walls and literal ones by locking them in their room.
Could she actually be an imposter? We don’t know why the surgery took place or how long she’s been gone. There’s mention of a father, but he’s nowhere to be seen to corroborate whether she’s whom she says. All we have to go on is the skepticism of youth and the determined impatience of an adult they should implicitly trust. Are her actions strange? Has she hit them before? Who knows? They’re definitely afraid, though, and confident they know why. Even she’s seemingly unsure, looking in the mirror at a visage strangely unfamiliar. And when she eventually runs towards the woods, shedding all clothing along the way, her existential nightmare devoid of identity isn’t lost on the audience. The time has come to acquire proof.
You almost have to admire Lukas and Elias’ actions because they’ll stop at nothing to discover where their mother is: in front of them or somewhere far, far away. They tie this woman to the bed, torturing her with magnified sunlight and superglue for answers. Lukas proves psychopathically dangerous, escalating the stakes with every whispered instruction uttered into his brother’s ear. Elias has second thoughts, contemplating the guilt and regret that will crush him if he finds out he’s harming his mom. But Lukas’ arguments are too damning, the evidence and inconsistencies hard to ignore. If she’s their mother, she should know everything about them right down to what they’ll do next. Unfortunately, authentic or not, I’m not sure anyone could anticipate Lukas’ ever-evolving plan.
What transpires is horrific in scope—on par with Michael Haneke‘s own Austrian horror Funny Games. The Schwarz twins are beyond creepy with dead stares and calm accusations, giddy sparring matches to prove how strong and resistant to pain they are, and wonderful blocking on behalf of the filmmakers to appear as though they split apart from one boy to two. They possess the upper hand from the get-go, capitalizing on their mother’s vulnerabilities and love, working her into a corner of distraught confusion. The truth exists on a much deeper psychological level, but you can’t help wondering if everything could have been avoided had she been more patient. How could she, though, when it appears her surgery stemmed from their misguided notion of reality?
We find ourselves having to choose whom to trust as Elias does himself with confidence waning. He’s scared and desperate for his mother to tell him they will eventually all be okay. It’s therefore just as easy for him to believe Lukas as it is the woman they’ve imprisoned. The hope is that she’s telling the truth so he can simply untie her and live happily ever after. But Lukas only gets more and more vindictive each time she ignores him. One could say he’s manipulating Elias into a false truth for his own unknown reasons—keen to keep his brother for himself without her rules, regulations, or pity. As for us, it’s near impossible to believe either once evidence doubles as dream to render everything dubious.
It’s this back and forth that Fiala and Franz’s film excels at. The scenes move seamlessly from a violent physical outburst to a visceral release of frustration to a sudden jolt from sleep. How much was real and how much imagined? Could it be that Goodnight Mommy is entirely a figment of the boys’ shared consciousness? Perhaps a nightmare of Wuest’ mother, her subconscious coping with a divorce and single parenthood by manifesting insubordination and evil tendencies as retribution for imploding their family? There are so many options that I wish I could have wondered about each until the answer was finally shown. A movie like this invites multiple viewings after its secret is known to ensure its construction supports the ruse with minimal holes.
I’ll tell you right now that it does because guessing the answer from the start made me watch through a lens of discovering whether I was correct. Every time my hypothesis was tested the script and performances validated my thoughts. From this vantage, though, I also found I couldn’t stop trying to poke my own holes in the hopes I could still be surprised. This tainted my experience by dividing my attention and seeing the boys’ actions as more than in-the-moment spontaneity. The strings allowing the “twist” to be justified while also maintaining the illusion masking it were exposed. So I could applaud the technical proficiency of the whole, but to some extent also saw it rendered as a reverse-engineered plot of contrivances solely to reach its tragic, bow-tied conclusion.
courtesy of RADiUS-TWC