Pesce dives into to the extremes of human suffering like a seasoned exploitation vet.
The Eyes of My Mother is a movie full of sick obsessions—with religion, with parents and, most unsettlingly, with the inside of the human body. The story centers on a young woman, Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), who lives alone in her family farmhouse on the remote outskirts of a small rural town, where she passes her time performing amateur surgery on the people she imprisons in her barn. The casual cruelty she inflicts on her victims is at odds with director Nicolas Pesce’s meticulous aestheticizing of her actions, because the film’s most grotesque obsession is the one it has with beauty. Indeed, this disturbing, slowly churning horror film is so carefully and elegantly styled that it’s possible for one to forget that it’s a horror film. To that end, it’s difficult to interpret this approach as anything other than a challenge to the bum rap unfairly pressed upon genre cinema, namely the idea that horror movies can’t be artistic, and if they are, that they must be designated as something other than horror. The Eyes of My Mother is a true-blue horror film—perhaps the year’s best and most disturbing—that also happens to be both wondrous and occasionally gorgeous to look at. Who says the two must be mutually exclusive?
Shot in inky monochrome deep in the American heartland, the film has the look and feel of a demented fairytale, recalling Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and the photography of Dorothea Lange. We first see Francisca as a young child (Olivia Bond) spending time with her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini, her face gaunt and haunting) on the farm. The two bond over the legend of Francis of Assisi and stories about mother’s time spent as a surgeon in her native Portugal, where medical students experimented on cow eyes because of their similarity to those of humans. To demonstrate, she plops a severed cow’s head on the kitchen table, scoops out a bloody eyeball and presents it to Francesca: “Everything we see passes through this,” she tells her, giving us the impression that we’re viewing this moody, off-kilter world through a distinct prism.
One day, a twitchy stranger (Will Brill) arrives, nervously asking to use the bathroom. In a quietly menacing sequence that recalls the subtle terror of a Michael Haneke film, the stranger points a gun at mother and orders Francesca to the corner of the room. What happens next is tragic and disturbing, but Pesce, demonstrating an equivocal and graceful approach, cuts away from any immediate horror, pushing the movie into a symbolic space. The feeling is that we’re witnessing unspoken fears becoming suddenly real, and Pesce’s method is to cut away during key moments, obscuring our view and misdirecting our experience. The film doesn’t unfold like a dream as much as it unfurls amid a cloud of heartbreak and sorrow, the kind that takes on a violent shape as Francisca transitions from childhood to adulthood.
And so we wait with bated breath to see how far Francisca will go. (Spoiler: She goes pretty far.) Wisely, though, Pesce avoids offering an easy answer to explain the character’s macabre habits. The most reasonable explanation is a toxic mixture of severe emotional wounds and a scarred cultural history passed down by her mother, but nothing in the film is so easily legible. It’s difficult enough to locate the narrative’s exact time and location—it could alternately be set in the Midwest or the South, and the technology, fashion and character behaviors suggest it unfolds anytime between 1950 and the 21st century—let alone the psychological impetus behind murder and torture. Over the course of three terse chapters—ominously titled “Mother,” “Father” and “Family”—we simply observe the strangest, most unsettling coming-of-age story imaginable. Pesce shows us how an impressionable mind undergoing a traumatic transformation can still retain a fundamental human desire for love and companionship. The results here just happen to come with a body count.
Some might interpret the movie’s ultimate aim as being an excuse to shatter our nerves while performing something of a crude joke. Pesce dives into to the extremes of human suffering like a seasoned exploitation vet, but his formal sensibilities place him somewhere in the European art house, and reconciling these divergent identities creates a contradiction that’s both glaring and, admittedly, somewhat annoying. You could call The Eyes of My Mother a one-note experience, but there’s tremendous complexity and depth to that note. The film doesn’t add up to very much, which proves to be its ultimate strength: It isn’t a direct probe into the human mind, nor does it offer any social commentary. It’s harrowing and stomach-turning, but disconnected from our human experience. It exists in our nightmares, on the screen and in that sublime space in between.