On corporeal knowledge, intimate depravity and unspoken psychology in Nicolas Pesce's stellar debut
The Eyes of My Mother Magnet Releasing
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Screenplay: Nicolas Pesce
Starring: Kika Malaghaes, Diana Agostini, Will Brill, Olivia Bond, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong and Flora Diaz
Rated R / 1 hour, 16 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The fine line between physical care and physical violence is crossed in the middle of a barn, somewhere out in the country, someplace encircled only by a distant, desolate one-lane highway and an indifferent forest, someplace where no one is around to hear the screams. The violence was invited inside in the first place - introducing itself as calm, polite, ordinary - only to be summarily transformed, absorbed into an unholy collaboration between kindness and brutality, between love and harm.
Nicolas Pesce's startling debut The Eyes of My Mother is, at least on its face, preoccupied with the possession and destruction of the human body - disfigurement, dismemberment, amputation, extraction. And yet its effect is not one of graphic cruelty or even sadism. Instead what comes across is something even more unsettling: Tenderness.
In the evening, the quiet young girl visits the barn around back of the main house. Her friend is waiting for her there. Not that he has much choice. He is chained to the wooden slats of the barn by his ankles, and to the rafters by his wrists. She has cut out his eyes, and wrapped the wet sockets with a cloth. She sits with him, she pulls him close, she cradles him as gently as one would an infant. She feeds him, and he nuzzles close to her, as if nursing. Contented grunts and squeaks seep from his throat. His voice has been otherwise removed.
His name is - or was - Charlie, and he is Francisca's only friend, the way a pet might be a lonely child's only friend. She cares for him - truly - like an injured animal; there's a great God's Eye shot of the two, one helpless and being cared for by the other, that marvelously accentuates their emotional codependency.
But as with any other family pet, Francisca will eventually be forced to replace it with another, and transfer her affections elsewhere. So it goes. The girl, played by Olivia Bond, will grow into an equally disturbed young woman (Kika Malaghaes, her performance haunting explicitly because of its lack of menace - her accommodating nature, her wide-eyed kindness) for whom inflicting pain as a sole means of companionship is, and will always be, the norm. Mutilation as an intimate act.
Pesce smartly (and mercifully) keeps his explanations about Francisca's behavior to a minimum. And the explanations he does offer have a twisted functionality to them. Her mother was a surgeon, and taught her daughter the same skills using the animals on their farm. Just as those with an extensive understanding of the human mind can probably do the most damage as emotional abusers, so, too, does Francisca's intimate understanding of flesh, blood and bone make her uniquely qualified to inflict maximum physical damage with minimal risk. Pesce resists much outright psychology - and both the film and character are more psychologically robust as a result. What we observe of this woman - through years spent mostly alone, except for the occasional ill-fated playmate - is evocative enough as it is. Her innate tenderness is both the most perverse and the most beautifully revealing detail about her. Those tender impulses have simply misfired, redirected into savage behavior; her emotional needs - familial, sexual, maternal - are achieved only by way of that savagery. In a sense, you could view this as a warped, surreal version of abusive relationships - in which the affection and attachment are as real as the horrifying impulse to destroy, possess, cause harm.
If not for, y'know, all the torturing, you'd consider Francisca a caring, affectionate person. We can see it in her sensitive treatment of her father when he dies; she cradles his limp body just as she does her friends in the barn. She mourns, she cries.
Moments like that - unnerving for their very humanity, or at least impression of humanity - are in keeping with the film's overall tone. This is a movie of ostensible depravity, and yet it never feels graphic; the real wonder is that it doesn't really indulge in the character's barbarity, nor is it out to shock anyone with what it shows us. In fact, there isn't much on-screen violence at all. Pesce's choice to shoot in (gorgeous) black-and-white blurs the effect of the violence; body parts are handled and stacked and wrapped in plastic, and the blood they're draped in only intellectually registers as blood. Darkly stained masses of flesh. The absence of red is a kind of addition by subtraction.
The most viscerally powerful moments are by and large acts of non-violence, which feel peculiar in an intangibly upsetting way. A woman trying to scream with severed vocal chords. A date with a nice-seeming young woman (Clara Wong) that grows malevolent in the most unassuming of ways. Or the scene that opens the film: a supposed salesman - a salesman named Charlie (Will Brill, brilliantly sinister in his neighborly grace) - who stops by one afternoon, asks with utter calm and politeness to use the bathroom, and with equal calm insists that Francisca's mother personally show him where the bathroom is. It's a scene not unlike the moment in Unbreakable when the garbage man stops by the suburban home ("I like your house...") and simply, calmly, forces himself in. This is a somewhat more drawn-out version; the politeness is the perfect mask. You're initially not sure if this man's presence is creepy or foreboding or not; but once you know the answer, it's far too late to do anything about it.
The polite man refuses to leave, of course, and Francisca never sees her mother alive again. And so marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship between her and Charlie. Dad comes home just a few minutes too late; he's the one who chains up the intruder in the barn. He, too, goes largely unexplained but simply observed; he is not depicted as ruthless or vengeful, but almost deeply passive. Relationship between father and daughter is practically wordless. Whatever is going on in that barn is simply not discussed.
It's perhaps not surprising that The Eyes of My Mother - as narrowly attentive as it is to this one woman, in this one location, and the candidly troubling state of mind that encompasses them both - doesn't exactly know how to end, and that is Pesce's only major misstep. In order to bring things to a close, Eyes briefly - but only very briefly - basically turns into a different type of movie, and then it's all over. Still, those underwhelming final moments don't undo the haunting effect of everything that leads up to them. Pesce's images are often unforgettable; his inexplicable mood, even more so.