First published by Sight & Sound, April 2017
Review: The Eyes of My Mother opens with an over-the-shoulder shot of a man driving along a country road. As the Carolina Buddies’ The Lawson Family Murder plays on the truck’s radio, the driver stops and gets out to help a female figure who has collapsed in the middle of the road.
It is a sequence that, in more ways than one, looks to the past. For it evokes the ending of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), whose now-classic story here receives a perspectival inversion and gender reassignment from first-time writer/director Nicolas Pesce as he shows three distinct (and headed) chapters in the coming-of-age of a backwoods female psychopath. Similarly, DP Zach Kuperstein’s high-contrast black-and-white cinematography harks back to a pre-colour age of film. And then there is that murder ballad on the radio, a 1930 song about a real-life domestic multiple killing from the year before. The lyrics, audible on the soundtrack, immediately set the theme and tone of The Eyes of My Mother, while leaving the timing of the film’s events less clear.
The other diegetic music that dominates the film – songs from Amália Rodriguez’s 1970 album Com Que Voz, which the parents of young Francisca (Olivia Bond) own on vinyl – also provides an earliest possible date for its events. These fado-like songs, with their focus on loss and longing, are the tunes to which bilingual Francisca is still dancing as an arrested adult (played by Kika Magalhães), long after her parents have died, as she continues to live – lonely and almost alone – in the family’s isolated farmhouse, somewhere in the America hinterland. Named for Francis of Assisi (the increasingly withdrawn saint afflicted with eye disease and psychosis), Francisca is taught surgery at an early age by her mother (Diana Agostini), who had been an eye specialist in her Portuguese homeland before becoming an American housewife. A stranger, Charlie (Will Brill), cheerily murders Francisca’s mother – and before Francisca surgically silences Charlie forever, she hears from her soon-to-be “only friend” a chilling (and formative) explanation of why he kills. It is a lesson which Francisca will take with her into adulthood and motherhood, even as she longs for companionship and a family of her own.
In several scenes early in the film, we watch Francisca and her taciturn father (Paul Nazak) themselves watching an old western on their television which we can hear, but cannot ourselves see. The oater’s dialogue concerns, precisely, the clash of what is seen and unseen (“I want this to happen – I don’t want to see it happen”, “a hanging sounds almost as bad as it looks”), and is programmatic for The Eyes of My Mother itself which, through Pesce’s surgical editing, plays peekaboo, requiring us to supplement its many narrative ellipses and off-screen actions with our own perverse imaginings and errant desires. A tale of exile and insanity, this American gothic is told from a child’s (children’s, even) blinkered if not quite blinded perspective, and is influenced as much by The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) as by Psycho (1960). Pesce’s artfully assured debut blurs our sympathies for a protagonist who is all at once heroine and villainess, killer and victim, growing up, as we all do, within her own myopic worldview.
Synopsis: The American hinterland. A stranger, Charlie, visits young Francisca’s farmhouse and murders her mother, a former eye surgeon from Portugal. Francisca’s father chains Charlie up in the barn and stabs him – but Francisca stitches the killer’s wounds, and surgically removes his eyes and vocal chords. Some years later, when her father dies, lonely Francisca brings Kimiko home from a bar – but after her admission to murdering her own father frightens off Kimiko, Francisca kills her too. Lonelier than ever, Francisca brings the still living Charlie into the house – but when he tries to escape, she stabs him. She buries her father near her mother.
Francisca accepts a lift from Lucy, but then runs off to the house with Lucy’s baby Antonio, chaining, blinding and surgically muting Lucy in the barn. Years later, the boy Antonio, raised by his ‘mother’ Francisca and bilingual like her, ventures curiously at night into the forbidden barn and finds a monster there. Lucy escapes via the opened barn door, and staggers out onto a road, where she is found by a trucker. When police arrive at Francisca’s house, she stands protectively in front of Antonio, brandishing a knife. A shot is fired.
© Anton Bitel