The Eyes Of My Mother is a grotesque, depraved genre movie with the skin of an art film pulled tightly over its bones. If Ingmar Bergman had helmed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it might look something like this exquisite nightmare. Making his confident feature debut, writer-director Nicolas Pesce shoots in a crisp, striking black-and-white and applies hallmarks of “respectable” international cinema—static long takes, passages free of dialogue—to acts almost too unspeakable to describe. To say that this is not a movie for everyone would be to put it mildly: The Eyes Of My Mother is too deliberately paced, even at a brisk 76 minutes, to serve as red meat for midnight-movie crowds, and the poor souls who stumble into their local arthouse theater unawares might stumble out scarred. But those with both strong constitutions and refined tastes—the kind who admire, say, the extreme French horror released this millennium—should mark their calendars accordingly.
Told in three chapters, each depicting a different step in a severely fucked-up coming of age, The Eyes Of My Mother is set almost entirely at a secluded farmhouse, somewhere in the neglected backstretches of rural America. Here, young Francisca (Olivia Bond) receives lessons in anatomy from her mother (Diana Agostini), who was once a surgeon in Portugal. The little girl is already perhaps unhealthily interested in death—dissecting a severed cow head could conceivably instill that obsession—when an unwelcome visitor arrives one day to promptly shatter her innocence. (As home-invasion scenes go, this one is extremely upsetting, mostly for how casual it is.) Something snaps in Francisca, trauma hardening into madness, and as she grows into a young woman (Kika Magalhaes), a profoundly disturbing ritual becomes an accepted norm.
Pesce is the latest talent to emerge from the New York-based Borderline Films stable, following Antonio Campos (Afterschool), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Josh Mond (James White). He shares with his creative collaborators a clear admiration for the highbrow horror of Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski, not to mention an expert eye and a formidable command of chilling sound design. But none of those filmmakers (all of whom serve as producers here) have leaped this deeply into the darkness. Much of the film’s violence is implied, with shock cuts that either skip past the moment of bloodshed or offer just a lightning-quick glimpse. All the same, once Pesce has established exactly the kind of movie he’s made, The Eyes Of My Mother operates in a sustained state of almost unbearable dread: The threat of atrocity hangs over every languid moment, and we wait on bated breath to see just how bad things are going to get in Francisca’s household of horrors. (Spoiler: Pretty bad.)
What Pesce may be after, with all his artfully staged unpleasantness, is a vision of how easy it is to warp an impressionable mind during one’s formative years, while still leaving the basic human desires—for love, for sex, for family—completely intact. (Think the shock comedy of Dogtooth, but with twice the shock and none of the comedy.) The Eyes Of My Mother operates, on a faintly affecting level, as a character study of an intensely lonely psychopath, engendering some sympathy for the kind of lunatic a more conventional thriller would simply treat like a bogeywoman. Mostly, though, the movie just wants to rattle our cages and jangle our nerves. Whether it goes too far in accomplishing that goal—a prolonged depiction of physical and psychological torment in the third act could prove a breaking point—is a matter of twisted sensibility. But there’s no denying that Pesce delivers ugliness with uncommon elegance. Movies designed to make audiences feel really bad rarely look so good.