Goodnight Mommy‘s original German title is Ich seh Ich seh, translated to “I see I see”; the repetition of that phrase twice not only matches the duality of the film’s twins but also the experience of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s twist. That understanding of what’s actually going on in the slow, drawn-out pacing of Goodnight Mommy may come early on, or some viewers may miss the secret until the reveal in the third act. But the good thing is that enjoyment of the film doesn’t depend on “seeing” the hidden meaning behind the twins’ actions, or even understanding the prior events that the film excises that lead to Goodnight Mommy‘s story; the experience of it all, like a bad memory, imprints on the brain regardless.
Fiala and Franz, sharing both screenplay and directing credits, leave much of the film open-ended, allowing the atmosphere of the summery sinister setting to saturate Goodnight Mommy with tension. Following twins Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) as they attempt to figure out whether their mother (Susanne Wuest) is still the same person after facial reconstruction surgery, Fiala and Franz start things gently, with long sustained scenes and quiet moments, before allowing things to devolve. Lukas and Elias play like little boys often do, hitting each other and exploring the beautiful countryside surrounding their mother’s lavish estate; the camera follows them almost entirely, establishing the childhood naivete of the twins as they rightfully attempt to decipher whether their mother – who, in their mind, has undergone a more dramatic change than just a facelift – could be a woman that they see in one of her photographs, or a monster that knows their names.
Goodnight Mommy is often deceptively slow, and it falls into similar territory like Michael Haneke’s terrifying Funny Games or even last year’s The Babadook. At times, it seems like very little is actually happening within the film’s world – the boys play games, Mutter gets angry, and there’s a toying, tense teasing that occurs as Lukas and Elias wage a ground war with their mom.
But those slow moments heighten the eerieness of Mutter’s erratic behavior, and they hint at something that hides beneath the veneer of Goodnight Mommy‘s childish games. Mutter refuses to acknowledge Lukas despite Elias’ pleadings, and eventually it becomes clear that there’s something darker about the events that surround this family. [Spoiler alert: from here on, there will be direct references to the film’s twist.]
It doesn’t matter if the viewer has previously pieced together the fact that Lukas does not exist in reality, that he is a figment of Elias’ imagination or even a ghost; that can be (and for me, was) guessed early on in the film, and in truth Fiala and Franz don’t really attempt to hide it. The experience of seeing this come to light is worth sticking with Goodnight Mommy, because the film is not just about seeing the twist but understanding the facets that make up Elias’ delusions.
The film hides its backstory well, but what the audience can gather defines the characters even more than what exposition could do alone. Mutter is not a different person, but coping badly with the loss of a child and unable to quell her son’s insistence otherwise. As Goodnight Mommy transitions from its slow but intense portrayal of character to its torture sequence, the viewer’s disgust of Mutter turns to pity; it becomes clear that this is a woman who has had to deal with an immense emotional trauma while raising her living son at the same time. It’s a horrifying revelation, that sometimes a person’s control slips away because of outside influences. It doesn’t excuse the way she treats Elias, but it does at least put it into context.
The film’s finale leaves things open to viewer interpretation, a vague explanation that intentionally refrains from providing answers. It’s easy to miss one of Goodnight Mommy‘s most haunting key scenes, a moment where the fire department puts out a housefire in the foreground while Mutter drifts ghost-like from the house to the forest; but for those who notice it, it leaves even more questions. Since this is not from Elias’ perspective, it almost appears the viewer is meant to believe that perhaps what Elias sees really is supernatural; even if that’s not the intention, the family’s final presentation – all three, together in the cornfield – presents a darkly happy conclusion that belies the deaths that come before it.
Goodnight Mommy isn’t perfect, and a few of its scenes seem to capitalize on the film’s secrets to intentionally mislead the viewer. But Fiala and Franz masterfully execute the suspense in the film, providing quiet moments that continue to mount until the disturbing final scenes. It wouldn’t be right to leave the Schwarz twins’ acting chops out of a list of the film’s successes, because they do a lot of the grunt work with just their expressions. While Goodnight Mommy might not appeal to those without patience, the concluding experience – the viewer’s “I see I see” moment – is certainly worth the extra time spent building up the three characters before we bid them a good night.