Posted on January 27, 2016

Goodnight Mommy: Who are we?

Dawn Keetley

Goodnight Mommy is a 2014 Austrian film directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz and released in the US in 2015. This film blew me away: it is so agonizingly disturbing, so beautiful, and so thought-provoking. I haven’t reviewed it because it would be almost impossible to do so adequately without dropping some major plot spoilers. And I think everyone should watch the film and experience its surprises. Part of the pleasure of watching the film is how unsettling it is, how unsure you become of what’s real and what’s not.

So, in this Short Cut, I just want to point out one of the many fascinating issues the film raises, and, happily, I can do so without giving anything important away.

The plot centers on twin boys, Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), and their mother (Susanne Wuest), who spends much of the film with her face wrapped in bandages. Was she in an accident? Did she have cosmetic surgery? It’s not entirely clear. Things are certainly not clear to the boys—Elias and Lukas—who become increasingly convinced that the woman in the house with them is not, in fact, their mother.

In the frame above, they are looking at a photograph ostensibly of the mother and someone else. Like so many images of faces in this film, though, it’s unclear, obscured: the photograph is just far enough away that we can’t entirely tell if the image is of the mother. And who is the other woman? The mother says, weakly, that the other woman (and which one is her and which is the “other woman” is also unclear) was a friend who liked to dress like her. Is that true? Or could the mother have had a sister or a twin?  Could she be the friend, the sister, the twin?

In short, the photo, which is ostensibly raised to solve the problem of identity, only makes it murkier.

I wrote in an earlier post about a photograph of Katie in Paranormal Activity that did not seem to be of Katie at all, arguing that it raised the problematic issue of identity in the film.

Good night Mommy is all about the problem of identity: is the woman in the house the boys’ mother? How can they tell? Is she some kind of malevolent imposter, their mother’s “double”? The film is filled with doubles—in pictures, in mirrors, in dreams, in the bodies of the twin boys themselves. Indeed, the film brilliantly raises in virtually every scene the terrifying question that so many horror films raise: How, in fact, can we know that ANYONE is who they say they are, who we think they are?

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