The Eyes of My Mother plays as though Eraserhead or Elephant Man-era David Lynch made a film about Ed Gein, if Gein were replaced with a beautiful Portuguese woman; that is to say, it’s a very strange little movie. If you find yourself within the undoubtedly limited segment of the moviegoing populace that would pay to see Bergman take a crack at Psycho, or thought Polanski’s Repulsion was too subtle, Eyes is the film you’ve been waiting for. While I can’t say that I fall firmly into either of those camps, I will say that I applaud this film for its inventiveness and economy, and that I was genuinely staggered on a number of occasions by not only the horror of what I saw depicted on screen, but the subtlety and affect achieved in those depictions. This is not a particularly gory film, but it is far more viscerally disturbing than the majority of modern slasher films that spend ten times its budget for fake blood alone.
Writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s feature debut is a thoughtfully composed chimera, blending aspects of ‘60s arthouse import psychodrama and ’70s slasher sensibilities with a seamless integration that belies its filmmakers deficit of experience. Beautifully rendered in rich black and white, the decision to shoot on film rather than in digital affords cinematographer Zach Kuperstein the opportunity to display true virtuosity in his use of chiaroscuro lighting, hiding the film’s minuscule budget in an evocative landscape of shadow and obscuration. Pesce wears his filmic influences proudly, lifting the most well-known shot from Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou and borrowing one of Welles’ famous composition-in-depth setups from Citizen Kane. Eyes is a truly remarkable achievement for a promising new talent, and that assessment stands even before we address its tactful handling of a truly bizarre script.
Pesce’s narrative is again indebted to the great masters, utilizing the rural isolation of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hitchcock’s forced identification between audience and antagonist from Psycho to create a claustrophobic affinity with a sympathetic monster. The story starts out simply enough, with a young girl being raised on a farm by her immigrant parents. This semblance of normalcy is almost immediately dispelled, as the audience learns very early on that mom was a surgeon in her native Portugal, and has taken to teaching daughter Francisca how to dissect a cow’s heads on the kitchen table. This level of comfort with death and dismemberment becomes a central leitmotif within the narrative, and will bear strange fruit after a home-invasion traumatizes our young “heroine,” leading to a story that unfolds with tragic and macabre precision. That the film’s three acts are bookended by chapter headings that allude not to the relationships in Francisca’s life, but to those characters’ respective deaths should shed some light on what Pesce is up to with this script.
By virtue of its psychological intimacy and atmospheric tension, Eyes of My Mother creates a profoundly unsettling cinematic landscape through which the audience is led in defiance of logic. The film functions as a fairytale dreamscape, not unlike Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face or Jaques Tourneur’s early work for Val Lewton. You know you shouldn’t root for Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), but by the final scene you’ll have a hard time extricating yourself from the emotional bond Pesce has created in a scant 76 minutes. The film falls prey to many of the shortcomings exhibited by novice filmmakers, but there’s an undeniable originality in the way Pesce employs the obvious influences within his cinematic lexicon, and the result is truly remarkable. I will caution perspective moviegoers that this is by no means a film for everyone, but those with the appropriate proclivities will find it gratifying on a number of levels. Be forewarned, this is probably not a date movie. English, brief subtitled Portuguese dialogue. Rated R for disturbing violent content and behavior, and brief nudity.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse