Monday, December 19, 2016
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
Directed by Nicholas Pesce, starring Kika Magalhaese as Francisca.
Perhaps one of the most poignant yet deeply disturbing portrait of loss, isolation, and loneliness I’ve ever seen, the unheralded THE EYES OF MY MOTHER demands serious attention. Yes, it adheres to certain standard tropes of the horror film, notably murder, evisceration, necrophilia, incest, and madness—yet the distancing effects of its stark chiaroscuro black-and-white palette, its painfully slow pacing, and its dispassionate gaze transcend the generic formulas. We are left confounded, curiously detached from its horrors, yet compelled to watch. . . And in its severely ascetic manner, detachment, and visual purity, it invites comparison with Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.
Francesca is a little girl who lives in a remote forest with her mother and father. She is told by her mother of the fate of her namesake, St. Francis, who, after living alone so long in the woods, beheld visions, and eventually went mad of an eye condition that resulted psychosis. “Loneliness can do strange things to the mind,” muses the mother. She is herself an eye surgeon, late of Portugal. She teaches her daughter the art of the surgical removal of a cow’s eyes (just like a human’s, only bigger”). The little girl holds the lenses aloft with gentle reverence.
Now we are prepared for the pathos and horrors to come. A passing trucker comes upon a savagely mangled woman’s body on the highway. . . . A long flashback takes us to the story’s beginning: One day a salesman comes to the house and kills the mother. The father, newly arrived, finds the killer hacking away at the corpse. He chains the killer to the floor of the nearby barn. “Why us?” the little girl asks the killer. “You let me in,” he replies. “Why do you do it?” she pursues. “It feels amazing,” says the man.
Years pass. Francesca, now a beautiful young woman, tenderly takes care of the killer in the barn, now bereft of eyes and tongue. “You’re my only friend,” she whispers to him, cradling his body in her arms. She also cares for her father, dead of an apparent heart attack, sleeping in his bed, dancing to the blind stare of his corpse, washing his body in the bathtub. Her loneliness overwhelms her and she cries out to her mother, now buried in the nearby forest. Desperate, Francesca drives to a local bar and picks up a strange woman, and brings her back to her home. Rebuffed in her sexual advances, Francesca kills her. Distraught, Francesca wanders out to the highway, where she is picked up by a passing motorist and her baby. After persuading the mother and child to join her back at her house, she snatches up the baby, stabs the mother, and chains her eyeless and mute body to the barn floor.
More years pass. Francesca stocks her refrigerator with the packaged eyes and other body parts of her growing “family.” Finally, one night the boy she has abducted wanders into the barn and releases his captive mother. Francesca is in a panic. “What’ll I do?” she moans, cradling the corpse of her mother (apparently freshly dug up from her grave). Meanwhile, dragging her chains behind her, the mother staggers out to the highway and is picked up by a passing trucker. The narrative circle is closing. The trucker alerts the police, who close in. Francesca crouches in a corner, knife in her hands, waiting, clasping the little boy by her side.
All of this, horrific as it sounds, is told in a style that eschews sensationalism. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is lean and spare. Dialogue is limited to a bare handful of exchanges. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein’s lighting is starkly simple. Newcomer director Nicholas Pesce’s static shot compositions are carefully calculated to conceal more than they reveal, while long shots and medium-distance shots keep the guignol horrors at arms length. Francesca herself moves with an almost balletic grace as she goes about the rituals of love and death. The few, powerful close-ups are reserved for the moments of her desperate, perverse need for love—when her loneliness has indeed done “strange things” to her mind—in bed tenderly kissing the corpse of her father; in the bathtub, lovingly bathing his desiccated limbs; in the barn spooning food into the ravenous mouth of her mother’s chained killer; in the kitchen, hugging the abducted child to her breast, oblivious to the wounded mother thrashing about at her feet. Her most beautiful moment comes in the scene when she executes a slow, seductive dance before the seated corpse of her father. Francesca lives in her own dream of love and of family, moving in a space devoid of any remorse, absent from the reality closing in around her. We can’t accept what she is doing; but we can’t deny her our compassion, either.
Like St. Francis, Francesca exists in a state of grace, a terrible, wounded spirit, a mad, isolated figure betrayed by her eyes, seizing the eyes of others as substitutes for the love and family denied her. If we are brave enough, we will watch her with eyes wide open.