A gymnopedic rereading of Michael Haneke for younger demographics, Goodnight Mommy could feature as Exhibit A to support the charge that if Jewish humour is German humour with the addition of humour, Austrian humour is German humour with added psychosis. Exhibit B too, and then some.
The pretext of this rather complacent display of juvenile sadism is the following: Mommy is a TV personality whose job is to look pretty so she just had a face lift and her face is completely bandaged; she has twin boys, one being a pussy and the other a bully (an iron role in such context); the bully is persuaded that the woman who came back from surgery is not their mother and he’s determined to prove his point. Obviously not using “the talking cure” so popular in Austria at the turn of last century, but by torturing her. A series of unpleasant events ensues, which one can chose to be disgusted by or to laugh at. Let’s take the scenic road, should we?
The original title translates to ” I See I See”, the repetition expressing both the primal importance of vision over other senses and the twins’ duality. It also carries feelings of impatience and doubt. It is better than the English one, which together with the red-on-black poster, makes this particular film a wolf dressed in B-movie sheep clothing. It pretends to much more than that, even so a predictable twist ending firmly snaps the extended rubber band back to pulp territory.
One twin pushes the other in a hole with laughter of excitement and pleasure: boys will be boys. He’s punished by Mommy, wearing a post-it on her forehead during a game of “Who am I?”. The post-it reads “Mommy”. Can you feel the disconnection from identity yet? Would the blurred full portrait of her in the hallway of her sterile architect house help?
Of course the twins raise cockroaches in a vivarium, for gross factor as much as to express the rampant things laying just below the surface. Of course the wallpaper in their room has an obsessive ant motive. Of course they kill insects by subjecting them to a magnifying glass. Staples of child perversity alternate with carefully staged symbolic scenes, one of which includes the exploration of a womb-like ossuary to rescue an ugly pussy.
At the thirty minute mark a huge cockroach is inserted into Mommy’s mouth and the pussy dies (no intrigue connection, but of course there is one of the metaphoric sort). The twins spy on Mommy through a baby mike hidden in her room and they decided to explore their inner Damien Hirst with her as their subject. Things get ugly from there.
The twins are locked in their room (where God prominently figures on one wall) and are not allowed bathroom breaks so they pee in a jar not to soil the oppressingly clean space they inhabit. They eventually get out and escape for a while in the realm of magic realism of a railroad track, a village deserted but for a drunk accordion player and a cloud in shape of a killer whale, announcing ocean rain and violence.
A priest brings back the twins to the house (Kinder, Kirche, Kuche, anyone?), allowing them to perform various acts of barbarity on Mommy. They successfully deflect suspicion from Red Cross visitors (Austrian rednecks thinking that Vienna is the mother of all sins) and the local police, but seem quite unsure of what to do with Mommy. Kids, before super-gluing your mother’s mouth shut while she’s tied up in her bed, better think you will have to feed her next, because cutting her lips with scissors will oblige you to sew the whole thing back after she had her frozen pizza…
One doubts that torture porn can convey much meaning, even when performed on family members. Moving at the speed of the glacier is it at its core, Goodnight Mommy is depending on how you decide to look at it. It’s either an art installation bent on allegory and comically heavy-handed symbolism, or a reptilian piece of trash aiming at entomology and achieving the equivalent of watching a cockroach drown in a pee jar.