Directors: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
R | 1h 39min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller | 4 March 2016 (UK)
Veronika Franz, a journalist and wife of Austrian film-maker Ulrich Seidl, makes her debut (co-directing with Severin Fiala) with this effectively creepy, slow-burning horror film that deals in the familar tropes of paranoia about mother figures and stolen identities, with a pair of spooky twins thrown in to boot. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the genre, but the film is well-paced and acted, and puts exterior and interior locations – sinister forests and fields where barely another person is encountered – to good use.
Set largely in an elegant but isolated modern lake-house, who’s interiors seem somehow chilly despite obviously belonging to a family of means, the plot explores the fearsome dilemma faced by twins Elias and Lukas when their mother returns from surgery for a mysterious accident, her face swathed in bandages. We never see the accident that caused this or get any clear explanation about it, and oddly there does not appear to be a dad on the scene. The mother, a TV presenter, soon shows herself to not only be an unsettling presence on screen (the bandages evoke the tragic lead of Eyes Without a Face) but is a short-tempered disciplinarian, with her strict demands about when and where the boys can play and even the decibels of volume she expects from them soon escalating into lock-ins and slaps.
This seems like a dark enough situation on its own, but Franz slowly ratches up the tension by having the boys decide to begin their own counter-campaign to prove that this bruised and bandaged figure is not their mother, but some kind of alien imposter. Yet even as our sympathy for the obviously vulnerable boys (who make no effort initially to run away, which kind of makes sense if you think about how children often simply accept the cruelty and strangeness of their surroundings) grows, the plot develops in such a way, with key bits of information kept from us and backstories kept vague, that we are soon doubting the twin’s conclusions. After all, couldn’t the mother’s bizarre behaviour (she can’t win at the same charades-like games they used to play, and is clearly more spiteful and controlling then the boys remember) be a result of severe head injuries and shock? The boys clearly have active imaginations – we see them playing hunting games out in the fields with maybe a bit to much vigour, and they have a keen interest in building traps and weapons – so isn’t it feasible they are taking this too far? And given all we have to go on regarding this family’s previous life are a few photographs in frames, who is to say what the mother was really like before?
As the twins behaviour escalates and the horror truly begins (there are wince-inducing uses of dental floss and hissing cockroaches), our sympathies shift, but the narrative cruelly denies us even one scream of admittance or the arrival of any piece of evidence that would tip things decisively, and stop the escalation of tit-for-tat abuse into something truly terrible. In this the film evokes Haneke’s Funny Games, or the work of Lars von Trier at times. There is no escape from the things we do to each other.