Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide

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FILM REVIEW: The Eyes of My Mother

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

You thought the torture porn era was over? Hostel, The Human Centipede, A Serbian Film – they came and went leaving a blood and faeces stained smear across the cinema of the late-noughties; those movies you read about in outraged Daily Mail articles, but never actually saw. “You thought it was over?” he throatily whispers in the voice of Saw’s Jigsaw. “It’s only just begun!” The Eyes of My Mother opens in cinemas 24 March, a slow-moving, black-and-white, wide-screen film about a girl’s revenge on her mother’s killer. Brace yourself: torture porn’s second coming has gone arty.

Nicolas Pesce’s directorial debut begins in an ordinary mid-western farmhouse. A Portuguese-immigrant family live out their peaceful lives and a young Francisca is taught how to dissect animals by her mother, a former surgeon. All seems serene until an armed intruder comes stopping by, and in the blink of an eye everything is tipped upside-down. Francisca’s mother is killed and her father beats the assailant to a pulp. The young girl then takes the deformed – but alive – figure out to the barn, chains him to the wall, and proceeds to carve out his eyes and tongue (hands up who hasn’t done that). Moving on a decade and the blind and dumb prisoner is still being kept alive in the outhouse. Francisca’s father has died, but his corpse is lovingly paraded around the house by the now seriously disturbed young woman (eerily performed by Kika Magalhaes). These macabre proceedings can’t fill the unspecified emotional hole, however, and as the protagonist goes in search of further bodies to play with, she begins to lead herself into trouble.

The Eyes of My Mother
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
 
Watching The Eyes of My Mother will be, for many, a bewildering experience. As you might have guessed from the plot description, this film is ‘Gruesome’ with a capital ‘G’ for Gore, Guts and Gastronomical Gross-ity. Anyone who isn’t hardened from weekly doses of Fangoria magazine will likely find the storyline utterly repulsive. Yet Eyes is also unmistakably arthouse. The monochrome photography, the play with shadows, the glacial pacing – this picture could have been directed by a disgruntled Bela Tarr. The result is a confusing mix of emotions. A bit like sitting through a particularly intrusive biopsy, the content divulged (literally) is stomach churning (literally) but the atmosphere is so cold, methodical and exacting that you feel just as bored as you do revolted.
 
In a way this meticulous approach is fitting. Torture porn has always been about control, whether it be Jigsaw’s manipulative games, or Dr. Heiter’s & co.’s anatomical engineering in The Human Centipede. These maniacal antagonists (and some sections of the audience) exact pleasure from the series of heavily over-constructed binds that the hapless victims are subjected to. Extrapolating this overbearing sense of control to the camera work, however, doesn’t entirely work – nor does it appear to fit with Pesce’s designs. The director has cited on numerous occasions that he perceives his heroine as a sympathetic figure, a lonely orphan seeking company through strange means. This is never really felt by the audience. The film’s aesthetic is so arch that we are distanced from empathetic emotion as much as we are from pure disgust.

The Eyes of My Mother
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
 
What then is left? Eyes does have some merits. Kika Magalhaes delivers an eerily detached performance as the ghoulish Francesca, and the film’s backwater American Gothic tone harks back to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Hunter before that. The film feels like a selection of odds and ends peculiarly thrust together, however. Some may enjoy plunging their hands into the cinematic stew, but most will want to keep it as far away from their eyes, ears and noses as possible. Maybe in ten years’ time we will be able to look back at torture porn and say that these movies said something interesting about the culture that produced and consumed them. We probably haven’t reached that place yet.
 
** - 2 stars
 
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