Whether mummy or mommy, a creature whose face is cloaked in bandages is eerie. So it might seem reasonable for twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) to be distrustful when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns from the hospital with a wrapped face. As Goodnight Mommy soon reveals, however, very little about the physically identical brothers is reasonable.
The trauma that preceded the events of this austere yet gruesome thriller can be recounted in a single sentence, but writing that sentence would nullify the movie's effect. With Goodnight Mommy, summary soon wanders into spoiler territory.
Likewise, it would be improper to specify exactly what sort of story this is. The clues are there, and many viewers will solve the puzzle before the film divulges the answer, but the narrative ploy is well camouflaged. Like professional conjurers, writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are masters of diversion.
A few things can be disclosed without risk. The family lives in an agonizingly sparse modernist home in the Austrian countryside. Mom is a TV personality of some kind. Dad is literally out of the picture -- photos of him have been removed from the house. The boys are very close, although one is the doer and the other the thinker.
It's summertime, so the kids spend a lot of time outside. They explore forests and cornfields, and sometimes one wears a mask in an uncanny echo of mom's bandages. Also ominous is their descent into a cavern that turns out to be an ossuary, inhabited by one living creature.
Adults are rarely seen and, as might be expected, are mostly silly and ineffectual. The only one who tries to exercise any authority over the boys is their mother, but her manner has changed so much that Lukas and Elias doubt she's the same woman she was before the surgery.
They decide to test her, in scenes that could be seen as allegorical of the way all adolescents investigate their growing power to defy their parents. The examinations escalate from disturbing to horrific, although they're presented with a chilliness quite unlike the gleeful bloodlust of American slasher flicks.
"Shot on glorious 35mm," as the movie's final title boasts, Goodnight Mommy is elegant and luminous. While the story conveys the anxiety of being unable to trust the most elemental of human bonds, the meticulous compositions contrast alienation and intimacy. Indeed, the filmmakers' assured style ultimately upstages their slender if effective script.
Veronika Franz is the spouse of director Ulrich Seidl, who produced this movie, and co-wrote his Paradise trilogy with him; Severin Fiala is Seidl's nephew. Yet critics have compared Goodnight Mommy less to Seidl's work than to the films of Michael Haneke, another Austrian known for dispassionate gore.
The resemblance is superficial. The dread in Haneke's movies is existential, reflecting his often overripe view of the fundamental injustice of all human life. Based on their debut feature, at least, Franz and Fiala don't think in such grand terms.
Goodnight Mommy is simply a child's what-if gone amok. "What if our mother isn't our mother?" a boy asks, and the idle query is pushed to monstrous lengths. Like most such tales, this one is chilling but not profound.