The Eyes of My Mother
Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Opens December 2
First, the good news: debut writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother is a damn purty horror movie, lensed by DP Zach Kuperstein in rich, dynamically contrasted black-and-white that lends the film a surfeit of dread-inducing American gothic “atmosphere.” Granted, with its arty compositions and ponderous pace Eyes also recalls Richard Marx’s unintentionally hilarious “Hazard” music video more than, say, The Night of the Living Dead, but you take what you can when a movie’s other offerings are so meager.
How meager? Put aside the photography and Eyes is little more than the caboose on the torture-porn train, with Psycho-esque Freudian pretensions to boot. The narrative centers on Francisca (played in the film’s first section by Olivia Bond), a young girl living on an isolated farm with her father (Paul Nazak) and mother (Diana Agostini), the latter of whom instructs her daughter in the fine art of cow eye dissection (she was a surgeon in Portugal). One day a strange young man (Will Brill) murders the mother for no reason beyond twisted bloodlust, the daughter stationed right outside the bathroom where the deed takes place.
So far, so good (as such grisliness goes), but then Pesce makes the peculiar decision to have the characters react to this event in completely inscrutable terms. Francisca appears traumatized and responds to the murder without emotion, but so does the father, who incapacitates the killer, locks him in a barn, buries the mother on their property, and then watches old movies on television as if nothing happened. Subsequently, Francisca tends to the killer (“her only friend,” she confesses), but also blinds and mutes him via amateur surgery, making him her slave/pet.
Why would a pre-adolescent girl do something so heinous? Is it the shock of the murder? Possibly, but the movie so repeatedly emphasizes the Freudian aspects of Francisca’s relationship with her parents that it appears she was virtually predestined for such evil. Is it the mother’s influence? Possibly, but as strange as the mother’s predilections were she also never exhibited any interest in sadistically torturing humans, at least not in her eight minutes of screen time. Is it the cold, nonchalant father’s influence? Possibly, especially since as a young woman Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) sleeps and bathes with him even after his death. But in the second half of the film Francesca only cries out for her mother, so the Elektra dimension remains relatively undeveloped. Defenders of Eyes will likely pass off these dead ends as demonstrative of Pesce’s refusal to “explain away” Francisca’s behavior, but I found them more indicative of the film’s sloppy, half-baked plotting.
There are a few more major narrative events in this 76-minute film that feels like 176. After the death of her father Francisca goes to a bar, picks up a woman (Clara Wong), murders her (off-screen—much of the editing in Eyes is elliptical), and bags and refrigerates her organs. Francisca then kills the killer and, at wit’s end, steals a baby from a mother (Flora Diaz) whom she subsequently blinds, mutes, and transforms into another slave/pet. Francisca raises the child, Antonio (Joey Curtis-Green), as her own; years later he discovers his real mother and frees her. All of this unfolds without a shred of suspense, surprise, or psychological or emotional intrigue—as per the last decade and a half of sub-par horror, graphic details of abduction and torture are supposed to act as compensation.
The fatal flaw of Eyes lies elsewhere, however. Beyond the contradictory motives Eyes ascribes to her, as a character Francisca never elicits our sympathy, let alone empathy. Once or twice she breaks down and expresses longing for the familial bond from which she was so brutally severed, but more often she is a mere, albeit disgustingly cruel, automaton. Hitchcock, of course, knew that aligning viewer identification with Norman Bates was precisely what made Psycho so fucked up; Pesce, on the other hand, doesn’t even follow through on his film’s ocular motif by allowing us to see the world as Francisca sees it, and thus to understand it as she does. We are always aloof from the action in Eyes: this occasions a few memorable painterly images (an overhead shot of Francisca lowering herself and her aged father into a milky bath, for instance), but overall it fashions an unfeeling, unenlightening, and, frankly, dull cinematic experience.