Although Goodnight Mommy is not rich in jump scares, it is very much a horror flick. Comparisons to Haneke’s earlier work, especially to Funny Games, are in order – the two first-time directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are Austrian, like Haneke. Veronika Franz is also the co-writer of all of Ulrich Seidl’s screenplays, whose Paradise trilogy I’ve reviewed elsewhere. That should give you a clue as to the movie’s atmosphere, although there is not much of Seidl’s symmetrical rigidity here.
The plot is deceivingly simple: the twin boys, Lukas and Elias, live in a remote modernist home between a cornfield, a small lake, and the woods. Their mother returns from hospital with a bandaged face. There are allusions to an accident and a divorce. Mommy used to be kind, but now imposes new rules: darkened rooms, silence, no visitors. She has a short fuse and takes a lot of medication. The twins get suspicious that this might not be their mother. They beging their research throughout the house, and their suspicions seem to be spot-on at first.
The movie’s main strength comes from the repeated shift of sympathy. Sometimes I rooted for the woman to regain her role as mother, at other times I was sure that the twins were right to protect themselves from an intrusive stranger. Mommy is able to explain her absence, her behaviour and her changed face – well, mostly. If she is not their mother – why is she there in the first place? Lukas and Elias seem to use very drastic methods for restraining her if she turns out to be Mommy eventually, but what if they are right defending themselves? There are no easy answers, and only very few red herrings. Like most good horror movies, Goodnight Mommy partly takes place in our heads, playing with our uncertainties.
There is a revelation at the end, but it does not change the whole fabric of the story, it only shifts some of the aspects. Both mother and children have good reason for their actions. The original German title is Ich seh ich seh, meaning I see I see, which of course points at the possibility that the people in front of you are not who you think they are.
The movie features a surprisingly small amount of blood and gore, and only occasional physical violence. This is essentially a three-person chamber play. It’s all in the casting. The woman is played by Susanne Wuest, and she pulls off a very difficult balance act between being motherly and being wrecked by that mysterious accident. She is credited as “The Mother,” so it must be true, right? The twins are called Lukas and Elias Schwarz in real life, and their faces bring the right kind of guessing to the movie: sometimes they seem pensive, sometimes cautious, sometimes determined. You never really know what they are thinking.