The Eyes of My Mother was written and directed by Nicolas Pesce in 2017. It was his first film and was produced by Magnolia Pictures. It is an ambitious and in many ways successful film, but I seriously considered turning it off at the one hour mark. I’m not sure the world needs another film like this, but its quality is a reward in itself.
The Eyes of My Mother is beautiful. The cinematography is dark and rich. The camera moves slowly and smoothly through the film like the main character. It takes place mostly at night allowing deep chiaroscuro and thin halos of light that trace the outlines of figures and shapes. It’s shot in black and white with a wide aspect ratio which suits the rural setting. The film takes place on a farm nestled deep in lush forests and rolling mountains.
Despite the craftsmanship, or perhaps because of the craftsmanship, The Eyes of My Mother crossed a line for me. There are no rules, there are no objective judgments that can quantify when the fictional depiction of torture and violence on screen goes “too far.” A testimony by an individual about a “film going too far” is meaningful only in proportion to how much you know about the person testifying.
The film is reminiscent of the 1974 grindhouse film Deranged, a film I actually did turn off mid-way through. When the murderer in Deranged hangs a naked woman from a meathook to drain her blood and the camera closes in on the blood dripping over her breast, I turned it off. However, after watching movies on both sides of the line it is abundantly clear that it is not the act itself that is the problem. Anything put in the right context and filmed in the right way can become acceptable, or moving, or even humorous. Monty Python can make you laugh at a man being methodically dismembered.
When a young woman is put on a meathook in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it’s terrifying and brutal but I accepted it as part of the drama. I could try to construct an argument to support my differentiating between the two meathook scenes but I’m not sure how good it would be. Deranged involved eroticism while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did not, but while acknowledging that some amount of rational assessment can be made it is a subjective and emotional judgment that is at work.
Deranged was directed by Alan Ormsby and was based on the true story of Ed Gein, a bizarre and creative psychopath who constructed a house of horrors in his barn. Ed Gein was the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho, but Psycho might as well have been a Disney cartoon compared to what Ed Gein actually did to his victims in real life. Hitchcock had a protracted battle with the censors to get his film into theaters. Who knows what Psycho would have looked like if the restrains had been taken off. It might well have been more horrible or perhaps not. Hitchcock worked in the mainstream. Had he produced something like Ormsby’s Deranged he could well have lost his audience. In fact, without Hitchcock first paving the way with his groundbreaking release of Psycho, Onsby’s Deranged would not have been possible.
Psycho broke new ground. It exposed audiences to a level of depravity and realism there-to-fore unseen on screen, but it was only the first step in a cultural shift that opened the door wider to the depiction of increasingly more gruesome acts.
Part of the problem with The Eyes of My Mother’s is its quality. Watching Freddy Krueger torment one-dimensional teen characters with smoke and lights is fine. He can chop them up and I’ll enjoy it, but if you have a fully realized character who is subjected to realistic sadism, too much sympathy is evoked and the horror cuts too deep.
Our level of intimacy and attachment to the characters is what drives The Eyes of My Mother. Francisca is defined by her loneliness and her inability to find a partner. She has been isolated, traumatized, and neglected. She is in many ways stunted. Her need for companionship has been twisted into a ferocious set of desires that delude and dement her. Often she is shot from very far away to emphasize her isolation. She has become a black hole whose gravity will destroy anyone who gets too close.
(The following single paragraph contains a spoiler)
Having a single person as the main character means that there is limited dialogue. The Eyes of My Mother is a quiet film that lull’s you into its soft atmosphere. During the first half of the film, all of the violence takes place off-screen. There is in fact a humorous sequence where the absence of violence is like a punch line. Francisca, our murderous main character, invites a woman home. The date doesn’t go well and as Francisca’s nervous guest tries to make a hasty exit and the tension is at its apex the scene is abruptly cut short. It abruptly butts into a shot of Francisca scrubbing blood off the floor the next morning, which in turn butts into a shot of the kitchen table where Francisca is parsing out butchered bags of something gory to put in her refrigerator. It’s funny, but again that is completely subjective. It appears to be intentionally edited to be funny but there is no doubt some people would be surprised to hear that I found it humorous.
The fact that our psychopathic protagonist is a woman is relatively novel but in the end, this film doesn’t seem concerned with challenging the problematic role women are often put in when appearing in horror movies. The Eyes of My Mother is considerably less sexual than standard slasher films and doles out equal violence to both sexes. It is more concerned with emotional states than issues of sexuality or gender.
Film criticism and subjectivity are uncomfortable but inseparable bedfellows. In the end, the reader must assume a certain commonality between him or herself and the writer and vice versa. The critic imagines a certain demographic to guide his or her writing, while the reader constructs a portrait of the writer that they can either trust or disregard. In the end, it is more a reflection of who we both are than we would like to admit, but it does not forestall an exchange of some kind. It is a blend of rational observation and emotional reactions that we try to share.
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