Nicolas Pesce’s feature debut The Eyes of My Mother is stylishly shot in atmospheric black and white, an American Gothic horror with nightmarish scenes that stay imprinted on the mind’s eye.
Blind Terrorby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The black and white, stylised 1940s-noirish look of The Eyes of My Mother creates a feeling of dread right from the outset. In a long take, shot through the windscreen from the point of view of a trucker who’s listening to incongruously cheerful country music on the radio as he drives along an endless, deserted mid-West country road, a broken figure stumbles towards him and collapses. That’s the prologue teaser.
The Eyes of My Mother is set on a remote farmhouse in a kind of retro rural America, where the era is cleverly fudged. It jumps in time between three sections over maybe ten or fifteen years. Nine-year-old Francisca (Olivia Bond) learns anatomy by dissecting a cow’s head with her Portuguese ex-eye surgeon mother in a scene reminiscent of Un Chien Andalou. They’re alone in the house when they are invaded by a passing psychopathic (Will Brill, smiling like an evangelist) and things quickly turn bad. He ends up chained naked in the adjoining cavernous barn.
Skip forward a few years and Francisca as a young adult (Kira Magalães) is left alone when her father (Paul Nazak) dies. She goes to extraordinary lengths in not accepting it. Loneliness can do strange things to people, her mother said, and Francisca tries to fill a new need she feels for human company in the only way she has known when, leaving the farm it seems for the first time, she invites a young woman (Clara Wong) back one night. It’s a compelling central performance by Magalães, a Portuguese former dancer, whose body language conveys Francisca’s strangeness and isolation. She’s a monster yet she allows us to have some glimpses of sympathy at the dark places she takes us to.
The black and white tones are sombre and the lighting is expressionistic. It’s like film noir meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Dialogue is in both English and Portuguese, with vintage-appearance yellow subtitles. Long silent takes in long shot or through windows create the feeling of being an observer of events and the time to process the unthinkable horrors of kidnap, murder and mutilation happening out of shot. Music composed by Ariel Loh insistently ramps up the tension, interspersed with doleful Portuguese fado, the heritage of Francisca’s mother.
Writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s impressive feature debut has some plot holes in hindsight but its stylish direction overrides them and suspends disbelief. The Eyes of My Mother creates a macabre world so taut and self-contained that events become terrifyingly unpredictable and it conjures up images that, once seen, can’t be unseen.
The Eyes of My Mother premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017 and is released on 24 March 2017 in the UK.