The Eyes of My Mother (2016, dir. Nicolas Pesce)
The A.V. Club said of The Eyes of My Mother as “If Ingmar Bergman helmed Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and I couldn’t think of a more apt description. The film is a coming of age story centered around Francisca, the daughter of a much older husband and wife. Her mother is an immigrant from Portugal who was a surgeon there and is very direct with her daughter about the intricacies of anatomy. A chance encounter with an extremely twisted individual begins Francisca’s journey down a dark, tragic path. The film is segmented into three chapters (Mother, Father, Family) and ends on what is an inevitable note.
The Eyes of My Mother captures that quiet, uncomfortable tone that you see in a lot of European horror films. It never shies away from the blunt horror of what people do, except in one very cleverly cut sequence. It’s not a film with a straightforward villain. A character appears early on and seems like they will be the villain but this is quickly subverted, and the story goes down an arguably darker route. Throughout, there is a dreamlike sense to the film. Its setting is a rural farmhouse, and the events are so far removed from the sight of civilization you can’t help but sink into the impending sense of hopelessness anyone who comes to the house faces. Something felt very familiar about the hushed tone of the horror in Eyes, and after some further research I found out director Pesce came from the Borderline Films production company which are also responsible for the similarly toned Martha Marcy May Marlene and Afterschool.
The plot of the film wouldn’t work so nearly as well without all the tonal elements in place. If the score had been more melodramatic or, performances were emotionally heightened all the horror would have dissipated. Instead, we are forced to linger in moments of horror. We see Francisca standing over a table working a hacksaw through a human body without revulsion, just a stoic sense of hard work. A character walks in on a brutal murder and, without a sound, deals with the killer. A mother runs after her stolen child only to receive a knife to the back and quietly cry out and squirm in pain on the floor. My personal favorite moment is the least explicit and involves the audience understanding information conveyed through a jump cut. An argument is going on between two characters, probably the most emotion at any point in the film. The tension is building, it’s well understood how this is going to end and then CUT. We see Francisca cleaning up the aftermath, and we immediately know what has happened between those scenes.
The Eyes of My Mother is not interested in pinpointing Francisca motivation. There is a possibility it is triggered by the inciting incident in the first act, or it is connected to things her mother taught her. Some reviews have been critical of this fact, but I personally feel that missing piece is essential to establishing horror. The best horror comes out of an inability to understand what is happening. Disorientation inspires a sense of fear in humans and by not having a long winded speech about why Francisca kills the audience is forced to contemplate why the events of the film occurred. In horror, it is what is unsaid and unexplained that haunts us the deepest.