The Eyes of My Mother, Nicolas Pesce’s startlingly assured debut, is dreadful in the most literal sense of the word. A horrific series of scenes early on establish a sense of anxiety that is maintained even in the film’s most tranquil moments. It’s overwhelmingly bleak, but executed with such conviction that it becomes impossible to look away.
The film is predominantly set in a timeless rural American house, in which Francisca (Kika Magalhães) develops a deep-set disengagement from death. When her mother, an eye surgeon who has taught Francisca her profession, is brutally murdered, the resulting trauma gradually manifests itself in a shockingly dark and perverse way.
The film’s arresting minimalism brilliantly conveys the detachment and isolation that pervades the film, although this comes at the price of effective characterisation. Newcomer Magalhães balances the protagonist’s seriously sinister side with an underlying vulnerability – revealing the film’s morality not to be quite as black and white as its cinematography suggests – but none of the characters are quite fleshed-out enough to feel like real people. At one point, having witnessed the death of his wife, the inexplicably catatonic presence of Francisca’s father sits down, smokes, and finally admits to her: “I need help with your mother.” Having barely been introduced to the character, the line simply doesn’t ring true.
It is tempting to see the small cast of The Eyes of My Mother less as characters and more as vessels for a series of striking images. Maybe in other films that would constitute a serious criticism, but here it is almost entirely forgivable for the sheer brilliance of the visuals. Shot in crisp black and white with a fantastic sense of space, every frame really does resemble a photograph. Horror through an arthouse lens: it is a restrained Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the sensibilities of Hitchcock’s Psycho. And yet, this isn’t a film that can be condensed to a series of influences – this goes beyond expectations and defies easy categorisation.
Finding a film that feels genuinely original is incredibly rare; rarer still to find one that doesn’t just bombard its audience with weirdness. That’s not to say The Eyes of My Mother is lacking in disturbingly bizarre moments, only that it is balanced with a high degree of control on the director’s part; Pesce knows exactly when to cut unnecessary narrative and when to linger. The results are chilling.
The Eyes of My Mother is an extremely disturbing film certainly not to everyone’s tastes, but those who are willing to subject themselves to 71 minutes of eerie, lyrical misery will not regret it. Above all else, it’s a visual masterpiece that will certainly establish director Nicolas Pesce as one to look out for.
Images: Park Circus