The Eyes of My Mother looked so unnerving that I actually avoided it at the London Film Festival when its screening clashed with a snoozy awards contender. Sometimes I scare easy. Eyes is the story of a little Portuguese girl, living on a farm in rural America with her mother, a trained surgeon, and her taciturn father. Mum teaches Francisca about anatomy, surgery, and how to remove the less necessary parts of living things. Unfortunately, a drifter calls one day and destroys Francisca’s home life, leading her to grow into an unusual, lonely young woman, with an even stranger relationship with her father and house guests.
More plot details would give too much away, but suffice to say Francisca is the central, curious monster in this domestic drama, shaped by her upbringing but with a devilry all of her own. As an adult she tries to make friends, but it’s not clear that part of her ever developed, and her social interactions drift unwittingly, almost serenely, towards death and torture.
One of the reasons this film is so unsettling and not just a hack ‘n slash genre flick is its sumptuous composition; first-time director Nicolas Pesce and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein worked hard to make every shot feel like a photograph, a barely-moving black and white still imbued with dread and menace. It’s not even 80 minutes long, and the moments of explicit gore and horror are few and far between, but the sheer elegance of what’s on screen means that those dark moments will still be there when you close your eyes. When it does surface, the brutal violence is earned, and brings the revulsion – rather than titillation – that it should.
The second obvious asset the film has is Kika Magalhães, absolutely spellbinding as Francisca. She has something of the otherworldly detachment of Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under the Skin, but with a crushing loneliness driving her stab-happy inclinations. Although the film has the good sense to get in and out quickly, it’s only the magnetism and inexplicable sympathy we feel towards Francisca that keeps us from bolting when things get horrible.
It adds up to a haunting debut from Pesce, with an unforgettable villain and scenes that will stay with you for months. It’s fairly stunning that Pesce was born in the Nineties (you read that right) – we can expect even greater things as he matures. Next up, he’s attached to direct an adaptation of Piercing by Ryū Murakami, who wrote Miike Takashi’s horror classic, Audition.
The Eyes of My Mother is in cinemas now.