Some Jezebel staffers were too frightened to see Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian psych-horror creeper some reviewers called the scariest trailer they’d ever seen. But Tuesday night I ventured to a Los Angeles arthouse to check it out, and though I wasn’t nearly as frightened as I anticipated, I did walk away struck by how brilliantly it doubles as a cautionary tale against modern motherhood, a disturbing metaphor for the way it demands relentless self-sacrifice and maddening consistency at a high price.
Goodnight Mommy intrudes on the self-imposed isolation of a post-operative mother (Susanne Wuest) and her 11-year-old twin sons, Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), who together live in an austere, isolated country home where spiral stairs are clomped up and down, blinds are forcefully opened and closed, where doors are slammed and banged upon, where privacy is constantly invaded, and where giant blurred portraits of the mother—a svelte media personality whose frail yet forceful body often resembles an angular, gaunt demon stalking the home—dominate the walls.
Viewers are given a few clues to an eerie backstory: an old audio clip of the mother’s voice, once warm and intimate, singing a lullaby, a brief reference to an accident, curiously absent missing pictures that once featured a father, an unexplained old photo of the mother with a woman who looks strikingly like her, all juxtaposed with stunning snippets of Austrian countryside and innocent boyhood play. The twin boys race through cornstalks, swim in placid lakes, bounce jubilantly on trampolines in hailstorms, and enact the playfully combative tensions of children so intertwined psychically they have no choice but to conspire and plot through the world together.
And in the midst of all this is the strange, grotesque beauty of this exacting, now eerily harsh mother: high cheekbones layered in white gauze, once nurturing, now alternately dead-eyed, glowering, and full of cold remove. Is she an impostor? A changeling? Are her sons disturbed? Or all of the above?
I mean, yikes, lady:
The movie, much like its protagonist, is both beautiful and flawed. Without giving anything away, what it does well it does magnificently—it is well-shot and captures the listless idle of rural childhood, infusing it with a sense of creeping unease and dread. And it does it all with a first-hour elegant restraint that feels carefully considered. But its mistakes, by contrast, feel nuclear: When it decides to go for the jugular, it guns it so hard in such an extreme, tonal shift that it makes you wonder if you’re even watching the same movie anymore. In its defense, its failures are nearly as intriguing as its successes.
But what fascinates the most thematically is the way Goodnight Mommy captures the complex, interrelated demands of motherhood, notions of female beauty, and the tension between the so-called selfishness of still catering to yourself as a complex, contradictory person while performing a consistency of presence that motherhood demands.
The film’s plot turns on the increasing suspicion by her twin sons that this once warm, loving woman is no longer their mother. And if she is not their mother, what has happened to their mother? The twins look for ways to prove her identity—her eye color no longer matches a photo, a facial birthmark has been painted on. She cannot remember Lukas’s favorite song. The escalating strain between their bewilderment at her changed form and insistence that she become who she once was, and her equally desperate need to heal is wrenching in its outsize portrayal of an all-too-real aspect of parenting.
Issues of beauty are woven throughout, her obsession with her healing face and the grotesque transformation from surgery to normalcy again, a bloodshot eye, swollen cheeks, drug-addled sleep. And your loyalty shifts throughout: You feel for the twins, even as you experience the sickening realization that this mother’s unwillingness to perform as demanded for her children is going to really cost her.
On some level, no matter how easy, how effortless, how serene a pregnancy goes, motherhood means a death of the old self alongside the birth of a child. Some of the most compelling moments in the film are tiny: watching this woman sneak away to heal, whether in pretending to be sleeping, stealing seconds to stealth masturbate, or otherwise lock herself away for desperately needed rest, silence, recuperation. These things become a premium even when your children are not secretly plotting to prove you are some sort of interloper. The film’s ability to portray these private, desperate acts as both critically necessary to her survival yet also as an utter betrayal of her children’s need for her presence, love and affection was masterful.
At times I thought Goodnight Mommy was a surreal, grotesque mashup of The Shining meets Mommy Dearest, iconic twin creepiness alongside the fake veneer of celebrity. Those giant, looming portraits of Joan Crawford in her meticulously scrubbed and ordered home, her morning ice bath ritual for her face to beat back any signs of premature aging, her intimidating, slightly sinister mask of pleasantness that hid all that brokenness and dysfunction. Only here, all the chaos pushes through to disturbing effect.
Movies, much like the world, have always loved punishing women for not adhering faithfully enough to the roles we assigned them. But something in Goodnight Mommy lingers longer and darker. For all its cruel thrill at watching a family turned in on itself, it strangely gets so much closer to showing the real tension of the bind of motherhood in managing self-care with self-sacrifice, the obsession with beauty, and anti-aging against the cultural, and often self-imposed call to forget the body in the service of others. Even in the tidy, controlled atmosphere of Goodnight Mommy, there is no good answer.