Ich seh, Ich seh finally arrives in the UK as Goodnight Mommy after opening at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and getting a release in several major territories in 2015. It hasn’t got much of a UK release (25 screens) with little promotion that I’ve seen from Vertigo. Yet, here is a beautifully-crafted film which surely has the potential to be a cult success. Its problem, perhaps, is a visual aesthetic that suggests art cinema and a number of narrative devices and generic tropes that suggest horror or psychological thriller. Inevitably, because it is Austrian, critics have made references to Michael Haneke and to potential metaphors about a Nazi past – possibly because the opening includes a colour film extract from what might be footage of the Von Trapp family singers. More importantly though, the film is produced by the other Austrian auteur, Ulrich Seidl and the co-directors and co-writers are Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz – Seidl’s nephew and partner. Franz has worked on Seidl’s films such as Import/Export (Austria 2007) and the Paradise trilogy (Austria 2012-13). Already it is clear that some horror fans are delighted with the film and others dismiss it – and at the same time, some audiences have problems with the clinical presentation. John Patterson in the Guardian uses The Babadook (Australia 2014) as a reference point – I’m not sure the tone of the two films is similar, but certainly there are some elements that are shared.
Outline (No spoilers)
The film relies on audience interpretations, playing with ‘reveals’ of narrative information – so many of the reviews risk spoiling the narrative. I’ll simply describe some of the things we see. Two boys of around 10 years old are playing in the countryside. Lukas and Elias are near identical twins, although one appears slightly smaller/skinnier than the other. They eventually return to a modern and stylish house on the edge of the forest. Their mother has her face heavily bandaged as if she has had cosmetic surgery or has been in an accident. She seems to treat the boys quite coldly with firm discipline. The boys react with disobedience and they begin to suspect that this woman is not their mother or that she has changed. A narrative of conflict develops. The film has only a few other marginal characters who visit the house and the boys take a trip into the nearest town, otherwise the action is confined to the house, the forest and the surrounding countryside. There is a resolution to the conflict and, in narrative terms, the film is a generic horror film/psychological thriller with possible narrative twists.
For me, the film draws on several classical tales and some well-known horror films. The scenario is in some ways reminiscent of The Others (Spain/US 2001)/The Innocents with a mother figure and children. The physical resemblance between the boys did confuse me and the fact that they are blond, ‘pretty’, intelligent and athletic/strong made me think of the Village of the Damned (UK 1961). When they wore home-made masks I thought about the out of control boys in Lord of the Flies. None of these film references imply anything beyond the fact that the visual style creates an atmosphere, a tone that is unsettling and that the presence of children in a scenario like this can easily shift from the domestic to the disturbing. I’m not sure about the suggested metaphors about Austria’s past, but certain images – of the forest, hide and seek in a field of maze, burning stubble after harvesting wheat (is burning stubble allowed in Austria?), a deserted town street, a dark lake etc. – do have a sense of foreboding or at least a hint of something that could go wrong. It is the expert handling of these images and the creation of ‘disturbance’ that works so well in the film. Later the conflict between the mother and the boys intensifies and becomes violent. I watched one sequence through my fingers because I’m squeamish, but I didn’t find the violence to be gratuitous.
I admired the film for both its craftsmanship and its creativity but I’m still not sure about its narrative. I was still puzzling over what might have happened hours later. There is already a complex internet discourse about what actually happens in the narrative and what is implied as having happened earlier. I would recommend the film and I wish it was getting more exposure.
The ‘lobby card’ for this film reads,
Strange things are afoot in Bad City. The Iranian ghost town . . .
In fact the film was shot in the USA, with funding from Sundance, and the settings look as much like downtown Detroit as any urban area in Iran. The film has enjoyed good reviews from a number of quarters and has a catching trailer. However, ominously, it is also rather flashy. Which would be my single word summation for the film.
It runs for 101 minutes, though it seemed longer to me. The plusses are black and white cinematography, which, at time, is very good. And the pitch for the film is intriguing. Variety sums up as follows:
[This] debut feature spices its genre stew with elements of Lynchian neo-noir and even spaghetti Western.
This is true, though my sense of the film was that it relied heavily on borrowings from earlier films. Not just those suggested above but Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and the animated Persepolis (2007).
The plotting struck me as undynamic. And the style, whilst at times eye-catching, does not add to the brew. The techniques in the film appear to have been used rather haphazardly. To give one example, the use of deep focus. This technique depends on lenses, focal distances and lighting, but when well done can be very effective. In this film early on there is a scene with deep staging, but it is in shallow focus: not very helpful. Yet later in the film we get deep focus when the characters are in the foreground and there is an impressive palace in the back ground. The latter relies on CGI, which affects the technique. But I sense that the filmmakers did not really notice this discrepancy.
The Guardian review awards the film four stars. It also mentions another film directed by an Iranian-US citizen, Appropriate Behaviour (2014): a far superior offering. The review ends with
It’s a film with bite.
I reckon you can say that about all vampire movies, but some have sharper fangs.
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
Marie is a young woman living in a small fishing town on Denmark’s North Sea coast (it was filmed in Thyborøn). Although the houses look as if they were built in the 1950s or 1960s, the locale is presented in a subdued palette and accompanied by mists in CinemaScope compositions which suggest timeless images of desolate coasts and stormy seas. Marie’s father is the ever reliable Lars Mikkelsen and her mother is another Danish film and TV regular Sonja Richter. Marie and her father take turns acting as nurse for her disabled mother who needs a wheelchair and help with eating and personal care. Marie visits a doctor with minor symptoms of something she doesn’t understand and she is a little alarmed/disturbed by his detailed examination and promise of another appointment. She is about to start work at the fish-processing plant, the only significant employer in town. Inevitably there are young men who want to tease her and others who want to date her. Soon, however, it is apparent that the attention she receives is more than most new young employees might experience.
When Animals Dream is a genre film and it runs a modest 84 minutes. It doesn’t manage the complexity and rich layering of meanings achieved by Let the Right One In. Nor does it manage to harness another genre like the youth picture in the same way as the excellent Ginger Snaps, even though it does use adolescent desire as part of the narrative. I enjoyed the film, especially in its use of the location which is redolent of so much Gothic horror (as well as very different kinds of drama such as Babette’s Feast which shares a similar location). Partly, the problem is that werewolf stories conventionally require a number of ‘transformation’ scenes in which the central character has to metamorphose before us, putting pressure on budgets for make-up and special effects – which for me never do very much. I think this film would have been greatly improved by less effects work and more focus on the various narrative strands. One promising narrative begins to uncover what happened to Marie’s mother and how it came to be that her ‘disease’ was contained. There could also have been some development of Marie’s relationships with a couple of the young men.
On the positive side, the performances of the leads are excellent and Sonia Suhl who plays Marie is believable as Sonja Richter’s daughter. There were moments when I wasn’t quite sure if it was mother or daughter. The best scenes are those when Marie and her father have to confront the townspeople – all of whom seem to know the secrets of Marie’s family. Here the film moves into the territory of ‘small town classic drama’.
Not much has been written about the film yet but I noted another example of a trend which seems to be developing – beating up on your own film industry. One Danish poster on IMDB condemns foreign critics who gush over the film when from his Danish perspective this is just another example of a poor Danish film. The same poster in effect repeats the Swedish argument about horror films – i.e. Scandinavian audiences are so familiar with American and British horror that they see their own as inferior. I think they are wrong to do so but I’ve given my reading above. When Animals Dream is a debut directorial effort by Jonas Alexander Arnby from a script by Rasmus Birch. Birch has a track record but Arnby has nothing listed for the last 10 years before this film (when he worked as an Art Director and short film director). The budget for When Animals Dream is listed as €4 million which is much more than most UK horror films get. The money has been well-spent on the look of the film, but perhaps more of it should have gone on script development?
Despite my reservations, I think this is definitely worth seeing (the ending is quite gory if that is your interest) and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Altitude Films.