4 out of 5 stars

The Eyes of My Mother is a film that’s difficult to recommend. That’s not because it’s bad (on the contrary, it’s rather brilliant), but because it’s so deeply fucked up, so intensely traumatising, and so thoroughly grim, that you have to be of a certain disposition to “enjoy” it. You need to be a certain sort of movie fan, maybe even a certain sort of person, to want to put yourself through an experience this gruelling. And yet there will be plenty happy to meet that challenge, and those will discover a memorable film with a ghastly and fascinating allure.

The story, told in three increasingly upsetting segments, follows the bizarre coming-of-age (or not) of a young Portuguese-American girl named Francine (Kika Magalhaes), who lives on a remote farm with her parents. When a stranger is invited into their home, tragedy strikes, and this sets Frannie and those around her on a horrifying path that spans years — a path that nobody escapes unscathed from, physically or mentally.

With her father retreating into shock and grief, Frannie is effectively left alone in her isolated home, with only the subdued intruder for company. Dehumanising the man entirely by virtue of the surgical skills she learnt from her mother, Francine keeps him as a pet. Later, as a young woman searching for a more human connection and confused by her burgeoning sexuality, Francine has cause to find a new source of company. And that’s when things become really bleak…

the eyes of my mother

Shot entirely in monochrome with sparse dialogue (in both English and Portuguese), Nicholas Pesce’s debut is a striking piece of filmmaking. Along with cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, Pesce utilises interesting camera angles and innovative shots (placing the camera on a tarp at the foot of a body, for instance, so we’re dragged along with it at ground level). Black and white inevitably renders a film more artistic, and this one’s no exception. Whether it’s wide-angle shots of the forbidding local forest, slow and sensual shots of our beguiling and terrifying lead, or ghostly depictions of Francine’s captives, The Eyes of My Mother is a visually arresting experience throughout.

Pesce’s film is a patchwork quilt of horror influences that manages to shock and traumatise in its own right. There’s plenty of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a lot of Psycho here, but also the undeniable influence of contemporary horrors like Martyrs and, in particular, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. At times, it can feel a bit like box-ticking, but the various elements are borrowed with reverence, and used to great effect.

Francine makes for an enigmatic and curiously enticing figure at the centre of this carnival of cruelty. She maintains a childlike innocence throughout; emotionally stunted by the day tragedy visited her home — although there are signs she was damaged long before that day. Despite her actions, she’s even sympathetic at times. Her desire for human connection is curiously touching, even as her attempts at finding it are unspeakable. There’s an undeniable sadness behind those large doe eyes, and it’s difficult not to ache for Frannie as she proves — quite literally — unable to let go of her deceased parents. The film is an oddity of atmosphere; a dreamlike excursion into a damaged young woman’s fantasies, desires, and fears.

the eyes of my mother

Curiously, for a film like this, it doesn’t actually depict many acts of violence, preferring instead to cut away, or give only the briefest glimpses of the bodily traumas being inflicted. Instead, the film focuses on the aftermath: the clean-ups, the lasting effects, the broken and inhuman creatures left behind. These have far greater weight, and the pain here feels suffocatingly timeless. The film pulls a similar trick regarding sex — although crucially, the one act of violence that the camera truly lingers is an obvious stand-in for the act of copulation that the film shies away from. The sound design — viscerally tremendous throughout — amplifies the conflation of sex and murder to uncomfortable degrees.

With Francine’s surgeries stripping her captives of everything that makes them human, the make-up effects have to be strong — and they truly are. Long, unflinching shots of these sorry wretches will linger long in the memory, and the sight of their grisly, destroyed faces is awful to behold. You might think that a lack of colour would temper the horror, but it only makes it feel more classic. More operatic. And if it hides any limitations of the prosthetics, then all the better. Francine’s victims (dressed in white shifts and wreathed in chains, croaking soundlessly) come to resemble the classic ghostly figure of lore.

the eyes of my mother

The performances are variable, however, with Kika Magalhaes’ turn as the grown-up Francine far more effective when she’s silent than when delivering dialogue. Her background as a dancer lends Francine a strangely soulful grace — even as she’s so clearly a monster beyond help — but in her line delivery it’s clear she’s not an experienced actor (although even this lends Francine an unsettlingly offbeat quality). And while, for the most part, the film’s procession of nastiness is brutally effective, there are moments that tread a little too close to unintentional comedy. And if we’re being picky, there are plot holes galore: shouldn’t someone be reporting these people as missing? How is Francine paying for food, rent, etc? But then, this is a film far more focused on atmosphere than authenticity.

The schlocky story is heightened by the film’s art house leanings, but it leaves us with a picture stuck in a limbo. Fans of shock horror will be put off by the deliberate pacing (even at a snappy 77 minutes, the film oozes along unhurried, with minimal dialogue, and a jagged, obtuse narrative sense of time), while those unsuspecting arthouse aficionados lured its way may well be sickened by the body-horror and inescapable ugliness of the story.

For the most part, though, this is a stark and searing debut; a monochrome nightmare that’ll haunt you and weigh heavy on the soul. The film’s ugliness is beautifully shot, with visuals and sounds that will sear themselves into your memory, whether you want them to or not. Extremely upsetting and powerfully harrowing, The Eyes of My Mother is a punishing watch if ever there was one. For some, that will appeal. For many more, it’ll simply be too much. You have been warned.

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Nicolas Pesce.
starring: Kika Magalhães, Olivia Bond, Diana Agostini & Paul Nazak.