The visuals of noir can be an effective tool when used well in horror. Horror, as a genre, heavily relies on camera angle, perspective, and play between shadow and light to code the visual language of a film. The more controlled tableaus of noir, with even inkier shadows and bright beams of light, can seem radical and shocking in a contemporary horror landscape. Horror is so driven by frenetic editing and sweeping shots—360 spins or shaking handheld camerawork—that a gentler touch with very controlled framing can really stand out.
Nicolas Pesce, in his debut film as writer/director/editor, really plays on clever references to the history of the genre. The Eyes of My Mother is the story of Francisca. As a young girl, she witnesses the brutal murder of her mother by a total stranger. Her father forces her to take over the day to day housework on the family’s farm, but also gives her free reign to use whatever skills her mother, a former surgeon, taught her on the murderer chained in the family barn.
The Eyes of My Mother is a clever mix of many styles of horror. First and foremost, it’s a shocking character study. Francisca is a fascinating character to watch grow up throughout the film. Her life is defined by loss and trauma, but it’s heavily implied that she likes it. Our first introduction to the character is as a young girl, intentionally cutting herself in front of her mother and able to offer no explanation for her actions. Her proclivity towards violence and fixing people grows more terrifying with each person who enters her life.
Francisca also functions as survivor and villain in her own story. The film opens with a unique spin on a slasher staple. A young woman, dirty and confused, runs out into a road to get help. There’s no one else around except for that one trucker who stops. Think the iconic finale of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any of the dozens (hundreds?) of films to follow with that emerge from isolation to an unexpected savior plot point.
The difference is this survivor doesn’t cry out for help, or approach the truck, or do anything to save herself. She collapses in the fetal position in front of a truck and has to be picked up by the driver who chooses to stop. Francisca, in her signature floral print on white dress, is painted as our triumphant final girl in a slasher where it is revealed she is the survivor girl and serial killer in one.
Digging deeper, we’ve had this kind of transformation in horror film before. A few slasher series have had the odd entry where, in a later sequel, our original heroine is revealed to be the new killer. Evil child films like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby inevitably try a sequel where the child is now grown and unstoppable. The stage version and novel of The Bad Seed imply the evil child will grow up to be an evil adult, but the narrative stops before it reaches that point.
I’m just struggling to think of another horror film where we witness this transformation happen within a single film. Halloween has its opening sequence with the murder, but that’s one scene of Michael revealing his true nature. Other films flashback for brief moments, discuss rumors and gossip in the town, or have the grown source of evil discuss what childhood events led them to their current state. The Eyes of My Mother does something quite rare in showing the growth in a singular film and largely in order.
I do find it necessary to point out a particularly problematic sequence that occurs between the first and second act. I’ve mentioned that the father expects Francisca to step up and be an adult while she is still a child. The relationship they have from that point on is questionable. I don’t believe Pesce intended for his film to dive into pedophilia, but some unfortunate choices—Francisca starts to share his bed, Francisca wants to dance with him, Francisca will move in close to his body at unexpected moments—sure seem to riff on that. Whether it’s meant to make us sympathize with Francisca more or paint her as some insatiable monster is beside the point. Those moments leading into Francisca’s adulthood are disturbing in a very different way from the otherwise psychological exploration of childhood trauma manifesting itself in a desire for lasting companionship obtained by any means necessary.
The Eyes of My Mother is closer to experimental film than a traditional narrative. There’s a literal three act structure in that the three sections of the films are introduced with roman numerals and a title card indicating act I, II, or III. The story jumps to very different stories in Francisca’s life in each act. There’s an overall narrative arc (slight, but present), though the film itself focuses on moments that happen along the timeline rather than a consistent thread outside of cruel acts of amateur surgery. It’s pastiche held together by carefully planned camera angles and it largely works. The film lingers in the moment, but not in a distracting or labored way.
The Eyes of My Mother is an incredibly stylish horror film that shows a lot of promise from a new writer/director. The fluidity of the narrative and refusal to take a moral stand on the actions of Francisca might make it a hard watch for some. This is a film meant to challenge and create discussion. Come with your brain turned on and ready to grapple with some heavy subject matter.
The Eyes of My Mother is currently playing on Netflix.
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