To an inexperienced viewer, it may seem that the bewitching, polished thriller Goodnight, Mommy (2014) dissects the theme of child cruelty and unmotivated violence with coldness and pedantry. But it’s not. In the project of the Austrians Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala, one can see not a straightforward suspense with a bunch of slashers and body horrors, but a subtle psychologism of a story about the loss of family values. This is a chamber psychological thriller, played out on three characters – a mother and two 10-year-old twin sons.
Film prologue. A young woman sings to her sons the Brahms lullaby “Tomorrow morning, God willing, you will wake up.” Little angels – the twins Elias and Lukas – kiss their mother and wish them good night. The father left the family, they now have to live differently.
Starting point of the story. A woman returns from the hospital to her rich, chillingly refined and sterile home. After plastic surgery, her face is hidden under bandages. Children recognize only the familiar eyes of the one whose noble appearance they are accustomed to seeing from birth. But most of all, the children are alarmed by the unusual behavior of the mother: she is angry, rude, demands silence and darkness, sets strange rules of behavior, and cannot stand the presence of animals. When she ruthlessly floods the terrarium with their Madagascar cockroaches, the boys are horrified: our mother would not do that. A doubt creeps into the children’s souls that this is their mother, and not some kind of impostor. The ordinary phrase that has flown from the lips – wishing mommy good night – is devoid of sincerity, it is forced and insincere. But the woman does not notice falsehood. The flywheel of the mechanism is launched, which spins the sadistic quest for the sons to determine the “authenticity” of their mother.
Final shots. A beautiful arthouse house, located near a cornfield on a picturesque lakeshore, is engulfed in flames. There are no survivors, just as there are no charred bodies. The camera picks up the figure of a woman in a yellow dress, which moves away towards the forest.
Movie epilogue. Twin brothers Elias and Lucas run across the cornfield towards their mother. All three smile tinsel, hug and look absolutely happy.
Throughout the timing, the authors of the picture scattered triggers – visualized plot anchors that help to correctly perceive what is happening on the screen. Their comparison and analysis reveal to the viewer the meaning of the film.
The key is to understand that there is really only one child in the house – Elias. Lucas lives only in the imagination of his twin brother. This is explained by the footage of the boys playing hide and seek in nature. When Elias opened his eyes to go look for his brother, he saw only circles on the water surface of the lake.
The fact that the child died as a result of an accident is confirmed by the actions of the mother. In the morning she prepares only one change of clothes and only one breakfast, does not answer Lucas until his brother voices the request. She simply does not see the second son, who is a figment of Elias’s imagination.
In the brutal scenes of violence, it is Lucas who personifies impersonal evil: he first appears in an occult-looking mask, initiates torture, incites his brother to mock a woman without a face until she proves that she is their mother. During Mommy’s latest “authenticity exam”, Lucas holds a burning candle in his hands, threatening to set fire to the impostor’s house.
The original German title – Ich seh ich seh – was given to the film by the children’s game of the same name “I see, I see”. In it, according to the description, it is necessary to guess the object visible to the leader, which is hidden from the player’s eyes. This test was decisive for Elias and his Mutter. She tries in vain to convey to the child the idea that he is hallucinating. He does not believe that he lost his brother, does not accept assurances that Lucas’s death is not his fault. The fact is that for some time the mother followed the lead of the mentally traumatized Elias: she played along with him, pretending that both sons were in the house. After returning from the hospital, she refused to do this, as evidenced by the phrase from a telephone conversation with a psychoanalyst: “… I can no longer deceive him.”
At the end of the film, Elias invites his mother, completely disfigured and exhausted from bullying, to play “I see, I see.” With teenage persistence and unhealthy persistence, he offers to guess what Lucas is doing at the moment (on the screen it is shown that he is holding a burning candle near the window curtain). Obviously, the mother cannot win the game, because one son is only a figment of the other’s imagination. Frustrated, Elias snatches the candle from Lucas’s hands, brings it to the curtains – a fire breaks out.
The shocking thriller Goodnight Mommy is filmed with some contemplation, conscious coldness and detachment. This was done in order to emphasize how completely imperceptibly an adult can become for his child a nobody, a stranger, the most hated creature in the world. The mother failed to understand her son and help him in time. The result is a terrible family tragedy that unfolded in an arthouse house located by a cornfield, not far from a picturesque lake.