I don’t usually go in for horror films. It’s a bit of a cliche, but as I have got older, the less impressive they seem to be. Perhaps I over-indulged myself a little too much in my teenage years (I can’t remember my friends and I watching anything but horror films), but there seems to be very little originality in horror films of the last few years. Western horror films are now full of jump-scares, or are overly gory, and tend to rely on shock tactics rather than compelling or genuinely horrific narratives.
So imagine my pleasant surprise (perhaps pleasant is the wrong word here), as I watched Nicholas Pesce’s debut feature film, The Eyes of My Mother. Part of the BFI London Film Festival’s Official Selection and debuting at Sundance Film Festival, The Eyes of My Mother is an arthouse horror film which absorbed me from beginning to end. There is something altogether different about Pesce’s approach to horror, something which contemporary horror films seem to forgo, in favour of blood, guts and gore.
When Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini) is brutally murdered in front of her at a young age, Francisca’s life changes forever. The tragic experience, and her father’s inability to deal with the aftermath, results in Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) acting upon some very dark and dangerous desires.
Shot in black and white, and utilising both English and Portuguese language to tell the story, The Eyes of My Mother is a truly horrific experience, in the very purest sense of the word. The narrative fixates on the trauma suffered by Francisca, both from her mother’s death and her father’s neglect of her and the situation. The murderer, Charlie, injured during the fight with the mother, is left for dead in the family barn. Francisca’s father, supposedly wracked with grief, instructs Francisca to deal with Charlie. The young girl, already traumatised, starts performing surgery on Charlie – the kind her mother used to teach her about.
Shot in striking black and white, The Eyes of My Mother is a visually layered film. A black and white horror film sets expectations for gore before the title sequence has even finished – traditional in Hollywood and in the arthouse circuit dictates this. It’s true, The Eyes of My Mother is particularly gruesome, but it doesn’t sacrifice story for these moments. The monochrome filter helps to soften these scenes, but simultaneously alerts us to their presence. The absence of bright blood makes it bearable, but the lack of real colour makes it even more unnerving.
It is never completely obvious whether Francisca enjoys inflicting pain on her various victims, or whether she believes that what she is doing is right. She might well be a product of her trauma and her upbringing, or it is quite possible that she is a psychopath and actually enjoys inflicting pain on others. It could also be a combination of both – as is most likely. Though leaving Francisca’s motivations open is interesting, it also prevent us from identifying with Francisca. We never get close enough to her to truly understand her thoughts and feelings, we are kept at a very deliberate distance. Though, perhaps this is the point.
Similarly, Francisca performing surgery mirroring her mother’s lessons is an attempt to replicate her mother – to become her mother. It’s another cyclical narrative, with Francisca desiring motherhood towards the end of the film. Encompassing societies expectations about women and motherhood, Francisca seems to feel that the only way for her to be fulfilled is to become a mother herself. Societal expectations on women as caregivers, especially mothers, is rife throughout the film. From Francisca’s twisted desire for a child (at the expense of another woman), to her need to ‘take care’ of Charlie by performing surgery on him, to her own fathers dependency on her – Francisca is constantly nurturing throughout the film. Is it forced motherhood? Is Pesce making a comment on how women crave motherhood and will obtain it any cost? Or is this just part of Francisca’s personality, something which has developed due to the trauma associated with her own mother.
In contrast, Francisca is routinely unemotional and presents stereotypically masculine traits when grieving for both her mother and father. She doesn’t cry or present any feelings, instead she gets on with her life. Though her father has relatively little screen-time (too little for us to really garner any solid information about him), we can assume that Francisca has developed this trait from him. The little we see of him presents him as unfeeling and even cold toward Francisca.
The Eyes of My Mother takes an interesting line on nature vs nurture, the cycle of trauma and it’s narrative unfolds in a way that compliments these themes. It is a throwback to older horror films of the 70s (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but masquerading itself in the form of an arthouse flick. It’s got a (again) horrific subject matter, but it just looks so damn good. To be honest, it worked for me.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not (I repeat NOT) a film to see if you don’t like horror films. Whilst you can appreciate the visuals and lap up the ultra-long takes, it’s a hard film to sit through if gore and guts are not your friend. It isn’t for the faint hearted, but if you can push past that – you’ll find a very interesting (and unique) film behind it.
The Eyes of My Mother is out on limited release in the UK in March 2017, and is currently on release in the US.