Serial murder has rarely seemed a more melancholy calling than it does in “The Eyes of My Mother,” a short, decidedly unsweet and wholly startling vision from freshman writer-director Nicolas Pesce. Meshing an especially bloody strain of slasher pic with the most whispery of high-art sensibilities, this tale of a young Portuguese-American woman drawn — by way of misused heritage and scarring personal tragedy — into severely psychotic behavior reps an exquisite waking nightmare, its meticulous monochrome imagery caressing the eye even as the filmmaker brandishes a scalpel before it. A characteristically cold cut from the ever-exciting Borderline Films, this standout from Sundance’s Next program may, with its stretches of silent storytelling and fado-laced soundtrack, be a tad too lyrical for hard-horror fans, but a devoted cult audience awaits an adventurous distributor.
“Never go in the barn,” a woman solemnly warns her child midway through the film. It’s a line seemingly plucked from a fairy tale, and for all its very adult interlacing of sadism and sensuality, “The Eyes of My Mother” does maintain a child’s-eye view of threat as its protagonist comes of age. Pesce’s heartland Gothic visuals — specifically the very inky expanses of Zach Kuperstein’s glorious widescreen lensing — conjure spooked memories of Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter.” In early scenes, meanwhile, as protagonist Francisca is introduced in the girlhood form of striking newcomer Olivia Bond, it’s not just the young actress’s dark, concentrated gaze that recalls Ana Torrent in “The Spirit of the Beehive”; both films probe children’s repulsed fascination with the monstrous, though “Eyes” literalizes the terror in the barn rather more emphatically than Victor Erice’s 1973 classic.
Pesce plays a currently vogueish structural trick at the outset of the film, opening with an isolated fragment from a far later point in the action — though the flash-forward works effectively to further muddy the narrative’s hazy blurring of time and identity. Though the pic is neatly divided into three chapters — cryptically titled “Mother,” “Father” and “Family” — following its out-of-sync prologue, disorienting chronological leaps occur not just between but within them, with viewers left to assemble just what has come to pass in the unseen periods. Pesce’s spare script doesn’t seek to obscure, but its quiet, matter-of-fact handling of drastic dramatic events will catch some off-guard.
Francisca is introduced as a wide-eyed naif, in thrall to her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini) as she is taught the legend of Francis of Assissi — absorbing a message of gentle kindness to all creatures that is rather rudely contravened when Mom subsequently, and with notable sangfroid, shows her daughter how to dissect a cow’s eye on the kitchen table. (Ommetaphobes should be warned, if the title doesn’t tip them off, that they’re in for one of the squirmiest sits in a movie theater since Bunuel’s “Un chien andalou.”) We learn, in what turns out to be a salient detail, that Francisca’s mother was a surgeon in her homeland before taking up the life of a Midwestern farm wife. This already eerily tainted impression of bucolic childhood takes a significant turn for the worse when a wild-eyed stranger (Will Brill) turns up at the farmhouse and unceremoniously performs a vicious act of violence before the impressionable girl.
The film’s ensuing escalation of torture and trauma — seemingly stemming from this incident, though perhaps embedded more deeply in the protagonist’s personal history — shouldn’t be divulged in too much detail. It’s fair to say, however, that Francisca grows into a young woman (Portuguese thesp Kika Magalhaes, passively transfixing throughout) with an ingenue’s curiosity regarding the body and pansexual desire, and a brute streak that belies her outward innocence. Pesce ventures into upsetting extremes of human violation and suffering, though there’s enough complex psychological grounding even to the pic’s grisliest setpieces to fend off accusations of exploitation or torture porn. As played with supple, mournful grace by Magalhaes (a former dancer, imbuing the role with a kind of swaying, uncanny physicality), Francisca remains perversely sympathetic even through her most severely inscrutable of actions.
In a film that frequently places teasing emphasis on what lies just outside our sphere of knowledge or field of vision, Pesce and his superb d.p. are sure to make every image we do see count. There are individual frames here, whether of corpses milkily enveloped in a bathtub or blood-smeared fingerprints on a refrigerator door, that hover on the precipice of dreamscape, and may linger in that realm for some viewers long after watching. More than an artsy aesthetic gambit, the deep black-and-white contrasts of Kuperstein’s cinematography serve to suspend Pesce’s narrative in a reality that never seems completely defined.
Working toward the same goal are Sam Hensen’s rustic, cleverly era-fudging production design and a soundtrack built on radical sonic reversals: The buzzing synths and rattling winds of Ariel Loh’s alien-electro score segue most disarmingly into a selection of lush Portuguese fado ballads, steering viewers in and out of our anti-heroine’s warped perspective on the horror before her.