Daily | Venice + Toronto 2014 | Veronika Franz + Severin Fiala’s GOODNIGHT MOMMY

Goodnight Mommy

‘Goodnight Mommy’

Veronika Franz, the journalist and wife of Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, makes her debut, co-directing with Severin Fiala, for this chilly, angular, ultra-violent arthouse horror,” began the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw when he saw Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh) in Venice. “Seidl himself produces, and the result is a technically proficient and at times unwatchably horrible ordeal set in an elegant modern lake-house bordering sinister forests and fields. It’s all topped off with a huge psychological twist, and this ending would appear to be influenced by a very specific director and very specific film. Naming these would be unsporting, but it is generally comparable to Haneke’s Funny Games and Jessica Hausner’s Hotel.”

It’s “about a pair of troubled twins (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) making life hell for their mysteriously disfigured mother (Susanne Wuest) [and it’s] built around a climactic twist I figured out in the first five minutes,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “So committed are the filmmakers to not cheating on their premise that they repeatedly show their hand, to the point where the big, belated reveal feels entirely anticlimactic. Not that it really matters, though, as the movie is otherwise pure nightmare fuel, building in intensity from its artfully uneasy opening scenes to its closing gauntlet of horror.”

At the Dissolve, Mike D’Angelo notes that “there’s no question from the outset that at least one member of this truncated family is delusional, but which one it is remains uncertain until the very end. (To the film’s credit, the two possibilities are equally upsetting; neither one seems preferable.) For a good long while, mere creepiness reigns, but my screening saw multiple walkouts during the finale, which takes a sudden turn into prolonged torture—not quite as horrifying as Audition’s closing reels, but in the same wince-worthy ballpark. Whereas Audition’s gore is in service of a provocative subtext, however, the circumstances here seem largely removed from any real-world concerns, with little or no elemental resonance. Whether that’s a deal-breaker will be a matter of personal taste.”

“Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht‘s lush widescreen images of the surrounding woodlands, lake and fields, shot in heightened colors that practically sing, establish the isolation of the gorgeous setting,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “They also provide a sharp contrast with the ultramodern sleekness of the family retreat, a sterile showplace full of overpowering statement art, some of it a blurred representation of the lady of the house. This is no cozy cottage.”

Christoph Huber for Cinema Scope: “Although the genre trappings are deftly applied, the force of the film has more to do with its atmosphere of uneasiness, intensified through mirroring motifs and unstable identities, plus a knack for memorable, richly metaphoric images: the twins jumping on shifting, muddy ground, a crazy accordion player walking through the streets of a deserted down (a moment worthy of Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière), a vision of a mother tied down by her responsibilities made literal in the Grand Guignol finale, capped with a blink-and-miss-it moment of ghostly apparition, to return to a vision of a family idyll, now turned inside out. A much-needed fresh breath in Austrian cinema.”

“A fairy tale for Dogtooth enthusiasts,” suggests Variety‘s Peter Debruge, but: “What exactly are Franz and Fiala trying to tell us?” wonders Tom Christie at Thompson on Hollywood. “That beneath the surface of this beatific Von Trappish appearance lurks a real darkness? Mission accomplished but I think it’s been done.”

“Franz and Fiala have achieved a real feat,” argues Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa. “Goodnight Mommy is decidedly a devilishly elegant, violent and complex movie that is truly indescribable.”

Updates, 9/15: “Franz and Fiala conduct a wonderful evolution of tone, from ghost story all the way nearly to comedy,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook: “it felt good, in a film I kept assuming would turn into one about an oppressive and repressive mother figure haunting her children, for the boys to turn the tables on her, start pranking her, and try to ferret out her identity. But then they take it further, much further, in a clear and much deserved parody of Funny Games… For me, the film eventually went too far, holding its cards too close to its chest but simultaneously increasing the violence to an implausible degree and effacing its dexterous uncertainty. But the pathway followed felt inspired and surprising. Very Austrian, no doubt, but a very clever, tricky debut.”

Four out of five stars from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.

Update, 9/28: “Like some of the best horrors,” writes Pierce Conran at Twitch, “Goodnight Mommy gets deep into the headspace of its main characters early, mounting tension and a palpable sense of dread through the introduction of incongruous elements such as a horde of cockroaches, a dead cat or the crawling ant wallpaper of the twins’ bedroom. By the time the first droplet of blood is shed much later in the film, the effect is so intense that it may as well be seeping out of your own skin.”

Updates, 3/21: “For more than a few viewers the scenario will be disappointingly familiar,” writes Jeremy Polacek for the L. “Still, pulled on by its laden atmosphere and mood, Austrian filmmakers Fiala and Franz’s debut moves implacably ahead, teasing those ties that bind a family together and those that wrench it apart.”

“The compositional touch of producer Ulrich Seidl is evident throughout, but Goodnight Mommy owes much more to Michael Haneke,” writes Chris Cabin for Slant. “In the third act, the film devolves into an extremely unsettling series of sadistic tortures, the kind of stuff that would appeal largely to fans of Funny Games. The underpinnings of the story would seemingly be bloody retribution by abused, anxious children against an older generation infatuated with class and appearance, but the script’s final twist abandons symbolism for a familiar psychological-thriller trope.”

Updates, 3/29: “What haunts you,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo, “are the ghosts of cinema past here, although the near-infinite allusions have as much to do with the utter simplicity of the story (what better to create an echo chamber with?) as they do with the proven movie literacy of the filmmakers. You think of Forbidden Games (soon to get a reprise at Film Forum in New York), Safe, Psycho, The Mummy (of course), and of lots from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg fans will get their fill of large insects and twins.”

“There is a significant last-act plot twist,” notes Christopher Bourne at Twitch, “but one that is cleverly set up and discernible to those who have been paying close attention to the clues that have ever so subtly been dropped throughout.”

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