Who’s your mother?

Who’s your mother?

Joyce Glasser reviews Goodnight Mommy

Mommy, and that already warns us to approach with caution.  Seidl, who gave us the unforgettable Dog Days, Import/Export and the Paradise Trilogy, does not make traditional horror films, but his highly stylised stories of marginalised Central and Eastern European deviants are packed with sinister foreboding and unsettling scenes.

Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy begins where many of Seidl’s films do, in a stylised, carefully defined and enclosed environment, a family home.  But it is a cold house made of glass and nondescript furnishings.  We do not see the kitchen.  It is a large, glass and concrete lakeside modernist house, isolated in a clearing of a dark wood.

A mother (Susanne Wuest) is recovering from cosmetic surgery. Her two, ten-year-old twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), are frightened when they see a woman whose face is wrapped in white bandages like a Halloween mask through which only her eyes and mouth are visible.  It is summer break and the boys go out to play and swim, but when they return she makes them close the curtains and directs them not to answer the door or the phone.  She tells them that she must rest after her surgery and there must be no talking at all in the house.  Most offensive of all to the boys, however, is her habit of addressing Elias, while ignoring Lukas.  Apparently, too, she is only feeding Elias, as though she is punishing Lukas. There is  mention of a father and an accident…

The boys suspect that it is not their real mother who has returned from the hospital and they revolt by bringing in a stray cat and putting a cockroach in the woman’s mouth as she sleeps.  The mother retaliates with a cruelty that would be foreign to their real mother.  On the internet they find a picture of their house and note with alarm that it is for sale.  They look through a photograph album and find evidence to suggest that the bandaged woman is not their mother. All we know about her is that she works or worked in television. The boys want the woman to prove her identify or reveal the whereabouts of their mother. When the woman repeats that she is their mother without providing proof, revenge is swift. But are they really acting in self-defence?

Goodnight Mommy has enough suspense and moments of dread and revulsion to delight horror fans while having something to offer the more squeamish viewer as well. Although towards the end the boys’ actions turn really nasty, this is not a traditional slasher.  On the contrary, it is the controlled release of doubt, false hope and dread that make Goodnight Mommy stand out, even if some viewers will have figured out the nice little twist on which the film relies.