Over twenty years into Michael Haneke’s career, a film like Goodnight Mommy isn’t going to impress anyone with its originality or its formal invention. At this point, formally chilly works comprised primarily, even exclusively, of bleached-white, modernist domestic spaces as barren of life as a morgue are the de facto Austrian exports to the world, at least cinematically speaking. Although Goodnight Mommy wasn’t directed by Haneke, it sometimes feels like his attempt at Hour of the Wolf, utilizing his giveth-and-taketh (and taketh, and taketh) style much like Bergman did in that venerable motion picture for an outright horror show. Let know one say that directors Veronika Frenz and Severin Fiala do not know their trade well. When they are bounded from perusing their more idiosyncratic gestures, maybe they know the rules of their trade a little too well in the end.
Originality aside, Goodnight Mommy is often a startlingly effective example of a studied type, and if it never explodes its type, it fits snugly into the higher-end expectations of its genre (this is no horror fast food, but a horror Whole Foods, or better yet, a particularly frightening neighborhood co-op). With a mother returned to her two roughly ten year old twin boys after a facial reconstruction surgery, her bandaged, masked face begs comparisons to classic works of the impressionist, poetic horror genre such as Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. As the two boys suspect and eventually come to grips with the fact that this new figure may not be their mother, a Franjuian critique of image obsession and classism bubbles to the top (the ultra-modernist summer house they live in certainly marks the family off as secluded in their upper-class retreat from society). The mother (played by Susanne Wuest), it seems, is more interested in her external appearance than in the sanity of her children, and the external style of the film – hard angled rooms, plastic-white seats, empty walls, all much like the mother’s face wrapped in bandages – is a stately fit for the themes brewing underneath the surface of Goodnight Mommy.
Themes that the film seems more willing to tease than follow through with, admittedly, especially when the ghoulish slow-burn of the introductory two-thirds catapults into a more gruesome and less unnerving torture porn, before a final, unnecessary twist scrubs its hands clean of such classism-critiques entirely. Image is still abundant in the film, but the external realm of the film pines for something internal, a critique of persisting in social rituals to preserve the sanity of the mind, perhaps. Undoubtedly, this is not an ignoble goal, but the directors’ cathartic, burn-it-to-the-ground style at the end necessarily sacrifices some of the festering dread they had so dutifully and judiciously mortar-and-bricked up for the hour plus that opens the film.
Before that, though, Goodnight Mommy is a thorough-going exercise in withheld joy and taciturn yet lyrical grimness, kept from the refuges of purely grim domestic spaces by periodic excursions into the seeming nether-realm that occupies the external world outside the house, a realm that soon comes to encapsulate fairy tale freedom as much as demented trek into the unknown. The film opens with a children-of-the-corn sequence (wittily prefacing and predicting the finale of the film) where the brothers (played like walking enigmas by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) play hide and seek in an agricultural field, a game that always perches itself between innocent and predatory.
Elsewhere, the writer-directors have fun relying almost totally on black levels in a number of sequences, most notably an excursion to a bone-filled cave and a later shot of one of the children resting on a wall that is bone-chilling. The light is let into that shot, surely, but in Goodnight Mommy light is less a safety than a reminder of parental terror and domestic spaces rendered immutable and deranged. It’s all a superlative showcase for superficial twitch-and-release dynamics rather than the descent into the inner regions of the human mind that the film seems to think it is. Which is fine; superficial technique is technique all the same. You just wish the release was as effective as that first-hour twitch.