THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (2016)
Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Beneath the blood, guts and depravity many horrors are really stories of family ties and obligations. There’s many examples, be it the satire on nuclear family values in Society, the intergenerational conflict of The Shining, the rituals of We Are What We Are, the co-dependency of The Devil’s Rejects or the maternal instinct of Rosemary’s Baby and Inside. Whether they are slaying, or being slayed, together it doesn’t matter – sooner or later their supposedly unconditional love will be tested. It’s against this backdrop that director Nicolas Pesce’s nightmarish debut fits in. After raising eyebrows, and inspiring hushed words, across the ocean it’s finally coming to the UK.
From the disturbing opening moments to its nasty closer, The Eyes of My Mother is an unpleasant watch. Shot in black and white, it tells the story of Francisca (Bond): a little girl living in a farmhouse, in the middle of nowhere, with her ex eye-surgeon mother (Agostini) plus her oddly quiet, and emotionally disengaged, dad (Paul Nazak). Their mundane existence changes for the worse when, one day, a traveling salesperson named Charlie walks up their path (a truly frightening Brill). The following scene is a sure contender for the most disturbing of the year – oddly, not because of what we see as much as what we hear. Father gets the better of Charlie, locking him up in a barn to torture him, but sadly it’s not until Francisca has lost a parent. Hovering over the unwanted guest, he asks her if she’s going to kill him. “Why would I?” she says. “You’re my only friend.” One of a few awkward time jumps to years later, and we see the effects this traumatic upbringing has had on our now older protagonist (Magalhaes).
I’ll leave the plot there, for risk of saying too much. But needless to say it goes to some very dark places. Along with some beautifully shot ones! Tonally, and visually, think of a Berman directed Chainsaw Massacre (another twisted family tale) aka arty torture. The cinematography is among the best I’ve seen brought to the genre in years. There’s an astounding use of location, which really communicates the characters’ loneliness. Several of the scenes are lit only by characters’ lamplights, making the fields and the barn look eerie as hell. And then there’s the goings-on inside, where there are some truly nasty makeup effects. You may not see what happens, but you definitely get its impact. Similarly, the soundtrack is suitably sparse, with much of the noise coming from chains dragging, heads thumping and pained yells. It all adds up to a visual and aural masterpiece.
Unfortunately, for all its strengths The Eyes of My Mother is simply never very compelling. At only 80 minutes it still feels dragged out, with some plot points repeating and others going nowhere. As such the film feels incoherent, and more like a long version of a short than a proper feature. This isn’t helped by the action being limited to a handful key scenes, meaning that the rest of it has to rely on its characters to unsettle. And here the small cast simply don’t have much to work with, effectively over-delivering on such a difficult script. Both Magalhaes and Bond deliver strong performances, but Francisca is just too much of a blank slate to be invested in.
Look, I’m a fan of preserving ambiguity, and I loathe when characters speak their motivations. Nonetheless, this goes to the other extreme by showing her doing awful things, but not really giving us much reason to find her interesting. Given how absurd some of the story points are it’s essential that we have a way in. Sadly, she lacks an internal life and as such it’s very possible to watch the whole thing without feeling much except disgust. There are some intriguing bits, including the strangeness of her relationship with her dad and the motif of violence to the eyes. Yet there’s not enough of it to make you think about what happens during or after. Though luckily Pesce is a much more accomplished director than a writer, and as such there’s only so bored or put off you can be.
The Eyes of My Mother is released on March 24th