The Eyes of My Mother (2016) *1/2
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Runtime: 1h 17m
I’m getting old, so it’s not terribly surprising that I can’t keep up with all the youthful trends. Indeed, it’s not like I had my finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist even when I was young (as you might have guessed about the middle-aged guy who reviews 50s sci-fi and horror films). Still though, since I watch so many movies I can usually understand the reasoning behind new cinematic trends. I’ll confess right now, that today’s film has me at a loss. I mean, who can honestly think it’s a good idea to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) without any of the (on-screen) violence and with the pacing of an Ingmar Bergman film? It’s not like this is the only film to pull this crap recently either: It Comes At Night (2017) was basically Dawn of the Dead (1978) with all the fun bits sanded-off, leaving an especially boring and especially long episode of The Walking Dead. Is there a movement in modern film schools to remake every classic horror movie as a bloodless snooze fest? It’s not that I mind a new twist on a classic formula, it’s just that these movies seem so actively opposed to having fun, that I cannot help but suspect they are the villains in a 1990s snowboarding movie.
Like all artsy films nowadays, The Eyes of My Mother is divided up into chapters, a practice I think indicates that the director/screenwriter would probably be happier writing a novel than making a film. These segments all follow episodes in the life of Francesca, the young child of Portuguese immigrants, living on a dairy farm. The strongest of these is the opening segment that deals with our protagonist’s childhood. Thing start off creepy right away, with Francesca’s mother demonstrating the finer points of optic surgery to her daughter with a dead cow al la Un Chien Andalou (1929). Francesca’s mother was an eye surgeon back in Portugal, before she left (presumably to flee Salazar’s government, though the time period of the film is up in the air, so maybe she just really wanted to be a dairy farmer). What makes the scene especially effective is the fact that it so viscerally unpleasant, but at the same time it is treated as a cute moment of mother-daughter bonding. Unfortunately, the idyllic but stomach churning dream of Francesa’s childhood is cut short by tragedy. A stranger, named Charlie, comes one by one day and murders Francesa’s mother. When Francesca’s father gets back that afternoon, he takes the completely normal and explicable step of beating Charlie into submission. From there though, he seems to loose all rational thought, and rather than call the police, locks Charlie up in the barn and has is daughter help him dispose of his wife’s body. All this would make sense if he wanted to torture the killer to get vengeance on him, but once Charlie is locked up in the barn the old man never bothers with him again. To Francesca though, the restrained man is a welcome playmate (it gets lonely growing up on the farm) and she cheerfully declares him to be her only friend.
A few years pass, and Francesca has grown into a terrifying young woman, while Charlie has stayed locked up in the barn. Francesca’s father has died from some unspecified cause, though later Francesca claims to have killed him. At least, I think he’s dead, the old man spends the rest of the movie as a motionless doll that his daughter moves around like a prop, but never seems to be in any danger of decaying. Until Francesca began to cry at the prospect of being alone for the rest of her life, that I was even sure that the old man was really dead, and not simply an absurdly heavy sleeper. It’s kind of a missed opportunity, watching the familial affection Francesca feels for her father transferred onto his decaying body, become more and more grotesque as the body falls apart would make for some extremely disturbing cinema. Done right it could be a real gut punch, imagine something along the lines of a non-erotic Necromantic (1987) or an Ozu movie directed by a lunatic (Sion Sono would probably be a good choice). It’s exactly the kind of gruesome idea that The Eyes of My Mother flirts with but never commits to. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the kind of thing small, indie horror movies are ideally suited to explore.
It’s not like the film is adverse to cheap thrills either. In the next scene, Francesca picks up a girl named Kimiko at a bar and takes her back to the farmhouse. They engage in a bit of shy flirtation (remarkably shy for two people in the process of a one-night-stand) before the gratuitous make-out starts. It’s an extremely odd scene, not the least because it adds precisely nothing to the plot or Francesca’s character development. Indeed, the movie does not bother itself with Francesca’s apparent bisexuality/homosexuality ever again. It also seems like we’ve jumped ahead 50 years from the opening sequence rather than the 20 indicated by Francesca’s appearance. The start of the movie, with the TV constantly broadcasting Bonaza, and the father driving a snazzy looking car bedecked with fins and chrome gave off a strong 1950s vibe. Yet everything about Kimiko’s mannerisms and dress suggests that she’s from a contemporary setting. Then there’s the tonal shift; I understand that having a slice or two of cheesecake is a long and honored tradition in horror movies, but it just feels so out of place here. Maybe it’s the black and white photography that makes me think of mid-century prudishness, but the whole scene just seems so at odds with the rest of the film. The only explanation I can come up with for its inclusion in the film is that the director owed the actress playing Kimiko a favor after she helped him move, and wrote her into his movie. Either that or director Nicholas Pesce was so desperately afraid of failing the Bechdel Test that he shoe-horned in this scene as a preventative measure.
Francesca’s obviously screwier than a hardware store, so it isn’t long before Kimiko is creeped out and trying to leave. Francesca doesn’t want her to go and goes to try to stop her. We don’t see Kimiko’s ultimate fate, but it’s pretty fucking easy to guess what happened to her. The film jumps from her struggling with Francesca to a shot of Francesca mopping up the blood in her kitchen and putting a suspicious amount of meat in her fridge. The film may not have the stomach to show us any legitimate gore, but at least it has the good humor to not pussyfoot around its own horrific implications.
From there, Francesca has sex with the still captured Charlie, murders him, commits a few more murders and abducts an infant. It’s all good stuff, in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) knock-off kind of way, but boy does this movie manage to suck the life out it. Between the somnolent pacing, the static cinematography, and the wooden acting, you’d hardly believe that this movie is a good deal shorter than feature length. The biggest problem is the characters, none of them have any real personality, and aside from Kimiko they barely get to speak any time they are on screen. The horror movies that inspired The Eyes of My Mother can skate by on poorly developed characters, because they are falling back on spectacle to keep our interest or drawing from stock-figure the audience is already familiar with. The Eyes of My Mother tries to follow in their footsteps but bereft as it is of gore and archetypes, it’s like watching a bunch of robots reading a script written by algorithm. We could sit here all day and try to document the problems this film has in detail, but everything that goes wrong can be summed up in one utterance: “It’s boring!”