Like many foreign movies that venture outside their home countries, "Goodnight Mommy" must live with an English title far inferior to its Austrian original, which literally translates as "I See, I See." Eyes — and what we think they see — are everything in this carefully controlled creep-out, gazing into mirrors and peering through shutters and tightly wrapped gauze. When it’s over, even those who have guessed its final twist (because we have seen it before) will immediately want to watch again, if only to check the logic of its shifting points of view.
Opens today at Kahala 8
Set in and around a luxurious home in the Austrian countryside, the story (by the directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala) centers on twin boys, Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz). Preteen and preternaturally beautiful, the boys lead a paradisiacal existence, frolicking in golden cornfields beneath unblemished skies. They are oddly unsupervised, playing alone until their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns from a hospital, head wreathed in bandages like another kind of mummy. No explanation is given for her injuries, but from clues cleverly scattered around the home — sculptures and portraits and an overheard telephone conversation — we learn that she is a successful television presenter and infer that a face-lift lurks beneath her dressings.
The twins are not so sure. "She’s not like our mom," Elias whispers to his brother, as their newly secretive and mean-tempered parent refuses to feed Lukas and insists on near-darkness inside the home. With each new insult and restriction, the boys’ fears grow until, believing the woman to be an impostor, they resolve to fight back. Exhibiting the detached, unaffected cruelty of the tykes in "Village of the Damned" (1960 or 1995, take your pick), these children of the corn prove that a twin with a tool belt can be a highly effective interrogator.
For the filmmakers, this is the fork in the road where they choose to forgo a commentary on our cultural obsession with looks and surfaces and settle for more visceral thrills — albeit delivered with a high gloss. The movie’s impressiveness, though, lies less in its ingenuity with superglue and cockroaches than its patient mastery of tone and, particularly, its visual richness. Shooting on 35-millimeter film, the cinematographer Martin Gschlacht paints two opposing environments, dressing the home’s antiseptically modern interior in soft, icy shadows that clash almost painfully with the explosion of color and bucolic life outside its front door.
Unspooling with virtually no music and a seriously unsettling sound design, "Goodnight Mommy" gains significant traction from small moments: an eerily depopulated village; a glimpse of exposed tissue; a single, malevolently bloodshot eye.
Brahms’ "Cradle Song" might play at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean anyone here has the slightest chance of sleeping. (In German, with English subtitles.)