Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Dir. and written by Nicolas Pesce
Starring Diana Agostini, Kika Magalhaes, Olivia Bond, Will Brill, Paul Nazak
It’s interesting that if there’s any identifiable trend in the horror cinema of the 2010’s, it’s surely the rise of the arthouse horror film. Combining horror --surely the most disreputable of all genres -- with highbrow aspirations for aesthetic and textual significance is hardly a new impulse, of course; you could probably start by looking back to Murnau's NOSFERATU or at least Carl Dreyer’s 1932 minimalist nightmare VAMPYR, and trace a fairly consistent --if winding-- path through Val Lewton, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, JIGOKU, HOUR OF THE WOLF, GANJA AND HESS, David Lynch, DON’T LOOK NOW, Andrzej Zulawski’ POSSESSION, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and finally to Haneke and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and ANTICHRIST. So it’s always been in the mix. But it seems like the field has proliferated immensely in the late ‘naughts and early 2010s, first led by Euro-horror like the aforementioned LET THE RIGHT ONE IN or TAXEDERMIA but gradually spilling over into the US indie horror scene too, and ushering in a raft of low-budget but high-minded fare like GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, ENEMY, THE VVITCH, AMER, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, RESOLUTION, SPRING, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, and this year’s DARLING. And now even non-genre aueteurs are getting in on the game, with Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee taking on vampires last year in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS.
I don’t necessarily regard this as a bad thing, though; if it’s resulted in a few pretentious snoozers, at least it’s also occasionally succeeded in shaking the horror genre out of its comfortable conventions, and provided a space to play with some genuinely new ideas. As primarily an exploitation genre with a history now well over a hundred years old, horror cinema has often been perfectly content recycling the same old beats for decades at a time --which can be perfectly enjoyable, even comforting-- but there’s also something valuable about imaginative and ambitious upstarts tackling the genre with an eye to find something unexpected. Something for a new generation to rip off. Fresh blood.
|The AMELIE of dismemberment.|
That brings us to EYES OF MY MOTHER, one of the most unique and surprising horror films I saw all month. It’s quiet, spare, stark, and filled with strange and haunting black-and-white images that don’t have any obvious link to familiar tropes and icons of the genre. It’s deliberate and lyrical, but It’s also plenty hardcore, so don’t get the idea that this is one of those incidental horror movies which is embarrassed about wearing the label loud and proud. It’s as brazen as the genre comes, it just has something little different in store for you, and it wants to present it in a distinct way. Give it a chance!
EYES tells the story of Francisca (Olivia Boand as a child, Kika Magelhaes as an adult), the Midwestern daughter of a Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini), who teaches her secrets of the medical sciences she used to practice in her native land by calmly having the child dissect a disembodied cow’s eyeball on the kitchen table. Francisca takes this rather clinical view of the world to heart, and does not waver even when a deranged stranger (Will Brill, NEVER FADE AWAY) shows up at the house and brutally murders her mom in front of her. Her revenge against this sick fuck --cutting his eyes and tongue out and keeping him chained up in the barn of her isolated farmhouse for years-- gradually morphs from cold blooded vengeance into something stranger and more complex as Francisca starts to chafe from the years of isolation brought on her her lack of parental guidance. Her desire to find something to replace the family she lost gradually consumes her and begins to manifest itself in some potentially unhealthy ways.
That’s probably all that needs be said about the plot -- and indeed, very little is said. It’s a very quiet movie, much more inclined to sit silently and observe than to chatter on about what exactly we should be making of all this. That might be frustrating to some -- The Guardian’s Lanre Bakare called the movie laughable because we’re never presented with a specific spoken motivation -- but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The root of Francisca’s problem comes for her very inability to clearly articulate her inner world to anyone else. All we can do is observe actress (and professional dancer) Kika Magelhaes’s precise, complicated expressions and body movements and try to parse for ourselves what is and isn’t going on in her head. The what is eloquently presented in the film’s closely observed visuals, but the why is what should be occupying our minds, prodding at our own vulnerabilities and fears and petty desperations as we struggle to make sense of the extremes we’re observing. Engaging with this odd and nebulous character is the whole point, not listening to a psychology lecture. Horror is rarely the purview of the rational and easily digestible. It’s entire purpose is often to push us to grotesque and distorted extremes, daring us to wade further into the depths of the human condition that we’re comfortable or familiar with. Here there be monsters.
EYES OF MY MOTHER is a film that asks a little more of its viewers than some of the more genre-friendly fare we’ve looked at recently -- patience, a lack of squeamishness, a tolerance for some ambiguity, and, of course, an appreciation for simple aesthetic beauty -- but it’s also not without some earthier rewards. It can be quite funny in its dry, devastating kind of way, and, when pressed, is capable of summoning not just images of repellent suffering but sequences of intense, visceral dread and nerve-curling tension. Sometimes even all at once, but always with an approach all its own. Consider the terrific sequence where Francisca’s captive attempts to make a break for it, fleeing blind and alone into the night. As she pursues, we’re struck by a somewhat chaotic bricolage of feelings -- we can’t help but have some sympathy for the panicked runner, but we also know he’s a heartless killer. We want Francisca to catch him, but we also sympathize with her and don’t want to see her do something we’re going to regret. And we can see she’s filled with conflict too -- she’s confident and predatory, but somehow she also feels personally wounded here, insulted and rejected and hopelessly alone. And director Nicolas Pesce chooses to communicate all of this to us in one long take; as Francisca sees her quarry through the kitchen window and heads off pursuant, the camera lingers inside to watch the slow, deliberate and methodical hunt unfolding in the silent, chrome-plated night grass outside. Like the movie itself, it’s mysterious, complex, deeply affecting, and simultaneously gut-wrenching hauntingly beautiful. Exactly the sort of unique, surprising perspective you’d want in an arthouse horror movie.
But now that we’ve done that, let’s hope Francisca also gets a franchise of low-budget DTV slasher sequels. Best of both worlds!
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
Uhhh, I think it’s a metaphor or something. She does not literally have the eyes of her mother.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA, but a good bit of it is in Portuguese
“Horror-of-personality,” a phrase I learned about on THE UNSEEN.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
There’s definitely a sexual act that takes place here in a context in which consent is not really taken into account. But it’s probably not what you think.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No, ordinary ol’ humans.
Francisca spends some time watching a blind captive who can’t see her.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Don’t uh, don’t… whoo boy, this is a pretty hard one to parse. I guess the moral is, you should really get out of the house a little more.