Horror cinema succeeds best when it puts characters in unimaginable situations with no chance of help. By isolating the victims in desolate, out-of-the-way places or by putting characters in situations where other people won’t believe them, it creates a real sense of unease for the audience. And so it is with Nicolas Pesce’s writing and directing debut The Eyes of My Mother, which commits to the idea of a remote location where terrible things are happening. Our protagonist has lived much of her life in isolation, so she has no idea why her actions are abnormal. She’s fighting off loneliness, which makes her a sympathetic character, even during the film’s most shocking moments.
Francisca is a child living with her parents on a farm. Her mother is a former surgeon who demonstrates dissection on animals for her daughter for fun, while her father is quiet and distant. A stranger arrives and demands that he access the house, and while the film only speculates at what might have happened, the outcome is that Francisca’s mother is dead and the stranger is mutilated and prisoned in the barn. Again, a lot of what follows is implied, but Pesce uses sound and long, almost voyeuristic shots to give a sense of unease.The impression is that no matter how bad things are on screen, there are worse horrors happening out of our vision. Some of the reasoning for this is obviously the low budget, but Pesce understands that imagination is a powerful tool in storytelling. The Eyes of My Mother prioritises mood and artfully composed images above strict narrative logic, and it builds terror out of horror’s most valuable asset: the fear of the unknown, particularly the question of what could possibly happen next under such bizarre circumstances.
While a good debut it’s not without problems, however. The lack of a more cohesive plot makes it disjointed, and long time lapses during key scenes are a problem for a story which doesn’t entirely hold together; there’s a frustrating lack of information, especially during the abrupt ending. Pesce doesn’t vary the mood enough to create a sense of rising action, or to give the audience any catharsis through the violence. But Kika Magalhaes holds the movie together as the adult Francisca with a fine performance. Her placid face and unnatural body language suggest a woman living a complicated internal life, without any external sense of herself. And she brings across her separation from society in subtle ways. When Francisca invites someone into her home, she stands with her arms stiffly at her sides, turned outward so her wrists face forward; it’s such a strikingly weird stance, compared to her guest’s more normal body language, that it defines Francisca’s isolation from normal society more than it would if she gibbered and raved. This is a film about a young girl exposed to horrific tragedy, and dealing with it in horrific ways. The Eyes of My Mother drags the audience into her unsettling world, and while it may alienate some and confuse others, it’s a world to experience.
24 March 2017