Ich Seh, Ich Seh | 2014 | Austria | Directed by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
Logline: A mother has returned home from hospital, and her two young sons become determined to uncover the truth of her operation and her real identity.
In the thematic tradition of the great Euro-horrors of the 70s and 80s, but shot with the clean, minimalist compositional style of Urich Seidl (who is producer), this domestic nightmare of identity and (dis)trust is the delightfully dark creation of Seidl’s partner, Franz, and her documentary collaborator Fiala. Delving into a fantasy world that merges and blurs the realities of adult and child, an escalating paranoia and moral slide pushes the narrative toward a deeply disturbing dénouement.
Elias (Elias Schwarz) and his twin brother Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) enjoy the expansive rural property of their parents with a gorgeous lake and surrounding forest. They seemingly inhabit a nine-year-old’s very normal realm of playful exploration and pretend. But the reality is, their world is far from normal. The parents have divorced, and the mother (Susanne Wuest) has recently arrived home from the hospital, her face swathed in bandages. Just what has happened exactly is unsure, and will remain that way.
The boys become increasingly distrustful of their mother’s post-op behavior. She is far stricter, aloof, and very demanding of her own recuperation. The young boys determine that mummy dear will need to prove her identity to them. Reassurance is paramount. Problem is, mummy is very reluctant to delve into the recent past. As such, the boys take the pressing issue into their own mischievous and malevolent hands.
There’ll be tears before bedtime.
What an extraordinarily original screenplay, and directed with a consummate style. Wuest’s central performance of the mother is superb, and the two real-life twins effortlessly capture that innate pre-pubescent awkwardness and curiosity combined. There is only a clutch of other speaking parts; the entire movie is essentially played out between the mother and her boys. It’s a psychologically claustrophobic movie, which tightens its screw until the final scenes, and then releases, the embers of ruin scattering on the night breeze.
The movie has a twist, but what is so clever, is that even if you discover the twist early on, there’s still another that refuses to be exposed. Knowing the first conceit doesn’t upset the narrative or make the story any less powerful or creepy. Goodnight Mommy is a perfectly disquieting nightmare, playing on that age-old childhood terror of your parents being imposters, whilst delivering a steadily horrifying portrayal of a truly damaged psyche, and the gruesome consequences of harbouring secrets from the disturbed.
I See, I See is the English translation of the original German-language title, which suggests a sly play on a children’s lullaby, however the international Americanised title is altogether more chilling and resonant, and fits the movie like a latex glove.