Empty provocation isn’t an uncommon accusation when it comes to modern horror. Whether it’s thematically weighty, cerebral fare like Trouble Every Day or down-and-dirty slasher exercises like The Strangers, both spectrums of the genre have been criticized for their extended indulgences in cruelty and depravity. But even as some faint-of-heart viewers may feel their stomach churn as they see some hapless sap dissected like a lab frog, the violence generally has a purpose.
The same can’t be said for Nicolas Pesce’s debut, The Eyes of My Mother, a puerile film laden with gruesome imagery but lacking in tension, character or a connecting purpose. Originally premiering at this year’s Sundance to revulsion and scattered admiration, it gives a bad name to the term “art-house horror.” The film is ponderous and repellent in equal measure, camouflaging aimless writing and nonexistent character work with an enveloping milieu of Lynchian visual and tonal shorthand.
Separated into obtuse chapter headings that give the impression of a larger narrative coherency, the story is minimal, a mere delivery system for textures of tainted normalcy and an oppressive familial dynamic that would make even Norman Bates tug at his collar in discomfort. And even at just over 75 minutes, the pacing is so staggered that the closest thing to a plot emerges nearly an hour in, before it neatly and unsatisfyingly resolves, reasserting the whole experience’s pointlessness.
The film focuses on Francisca as first a precocious but budding oddball of a child (Olivia Bond), and then as a socially inept young woman (Kika Magalhaes). The daughter of a Portuguese surgeon (Diana Agostini), she grows up on a farm in an unspecified remote area, and develops a pathological curiosity with her mom’s old job, specifically the ways that anatomy works. This emerging subversion is mirrored in tableaus of domesticity that abruptly turn to more insidious imagery.
The first scene with Francisca and her mother is nothing less than the two petting a cow outside before cutting to that same cow’s severed head being mutilated on the kitchen table. It’s telling that this single character moment precedes the dominant plot element, as a random encounter with a door-to-door salesman leads to a violent event that snowballs, and consumes Francisca’s subsequent life.
From then on, Francisca moves in a giddy trance, mechanically cleaning and tending to the house while homicidal urges brew beneath her disheveled smile and askew nature. As Francisca’s family is pushed farther out of her life for various reasons, her appetite for skewering bodies grows, and she copes with the void of loneliness through less savory outlets.
Bathed in inky black-and-white cinematography by Zach Kuperstein, and propelled by Ariel Loh’s wheezing drones and radiant, twinkling synth tones, The Eyes of My Mother overflows with atmosphere, but its striking aesthetic betrays far loftier thematic goals than its script. The film less examines Francisca’s psychology than manipulates the endless tonal swerves into the vague resemblance of an arc.
The Eyes of My Mother’s only engine is the mystery of what is seen and unseen, as innocuous scenes of picking flowers are stitched together with cutting into limbs like a honey-baked ham. And all the while, Pesce commits to patterns of sequences where the audience is aware that violence is happening, but cuts away after a flash of the truth, whether it’s bodies being dragged behind doors or spliced glimpses of grotesqueries. It’s comparable to the early section of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before Leatherface makes his presence fully known. The difference is that in Tobe Hooper’s classic, the early section worked in perfect concert with the relentless pace of the second half. This film wallows in a limbo of psychopathy.
The dialogue is similarly opaque. Magalhaes delivers each line in clenched bursts, totally unaware of why joking about killing her parents would be inappropriate conversation with a woman she just met at a bar, or her overly familiar body language with a stranger’s babies. But while these details offer one of the few pieces of enjoyment in an otherwise dreadfully surface-level film, that’s the full extent of the audience’s understanding of this character. And while Magalhaes brings a committed otherness to this role, it also incidentally reveals how her co-stars are mostly just bad performers.
Pesce has an undeniable talent for composition, shown most readily in a series of long takes that shift fluidly into close-up. The most purely pleasurable one involves an extended sequence shot through a window that just watches as two characters shamble off into the distance before the camera expertly reverts to the other side of the pair in close proximity. But these moments of virtuosity feel like little more than film school parlor tricks, another distraction from The Eyes of My Mother’s insulting vapidity.
Writer: Nicolas Pesce
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Starring: Kika Magalhaes, Olivia Bond, Diana Agostini, Will Brill, Paul Nazak
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2016