The Austrian chiller amongst this year’s Freak Me Out line-up traffics in sustained dread, with crisp minimalist cinematography and a very assured sense of place and isolation. Goodnight Mommy almost makes you want to never get to any real climax, as the tension mounts in such an expertly crafted fashion. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who both previously worked together on the 2012 documentary Kern, have directed a film that’s not particularly original or unique in its narrative or execution, but is nonetheless an unnerving and engaging cinematic experience.
The narrative is bleak and set up in an intentionally vague manner; two twin brothers, Elias and Lukas (played by actors of the same name), return home after playing out in the fields surrounding their isolated house to find their mother (Susanne Wuest), an Austrian b-list celebrity, with bandages covering her face, presumably as a result of significant plastic surgery. Not only are they frightened and curious about their mother’s new appearance, her harsh and violent attitude towards one of the boys leads them to believe that the woman in their house may not actually be their mother, but an imposter. As such, the story plays out like a strange home invasion from within the house, as we witness the quite terrifying reign of authority of their mother suddenly be upended when the two brothers decide to rise up and challenge the maternal figure, with some gruesome consequences. What lifts the plot as well is the perfect casting of all three leads, the twins both endearing and terrifying in equal measure, whilst Wuest brings an impressive physicality to her role that consistently acts to play with the audience expectations.
The influence of Ulrich Seidl, Franz’s partner and a producer on Goodnight Mommy, can’t really be felt, outside of two shots that are identical to frames in In the Basement and Paradise: Faith. Rather, the film plays with Seidl’s sense of symmetry but imbues it with this paradoxical visual looseness and a tonal aside to a certain Michael Haneke film. Shot by Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner’s go-to cinematographer, the film often experiments with shot duration and isn’t content just confining the action to their sleekly designed very modern home. In sequences like the one where the boys go into the small town nearby Franz and Fiala acknowledge the well-worn nature of their narrative and act to slyly push outside of it, something they are able to achieve effectively with visual misdirection.
As with films of this ilk, and on the point of misdirection, there’s an arbitrary plot reveal late in the film that feels somewhat pat, though whilst not entirely narratively satisfying it is visually ingenious, making Goodnight Mommy ripe for repeat viewings. In fact, I was in the minority of viewers who didn’t outright guess the end, and that’s because Franz and Fiala have packed in so many great red herrings and a very uncomfortable subtext about the dissolution of a family (a recent divorce is mentioned early on) that the film could have worked even without the final reveal.
What makes Goodnight Mommy memorable isn’t its plot points but its confident sense of tone and atmosphere. The vivid pastel colours searing through the relentless fog of the nearby forest, a terrifying scene of the mother alone in the forest, even in the production design, with two photographs blown up on their walls that only exist to confuse and unsettle; they appear to be significantly blurred variations of shots that appear in the film.
One of the most important elements of a Freak Me Out film at Sydney Film Festival is how the films plays (or plays off of) its audience. From the tense silence throughout much of the first 30 minutes of the film to the universal gasp of horror as the first sight of blood gushes into frame, Goodnight Mommy proves itself worthy of this curation, even in spite of its intentional arthouse minimalism.
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