Director: Veronika Franz/Severin Fiala Producer: Ulrich Seidl
Cast: Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
99min Austria (German with subtitles)
The Austrians are very good at taking ordinary life and turning into horror at Venice this year. In the same vein as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), Ulrich Seidl’s (Im Keller) wife and collaborator, Veronika Franz, makes her directorial debut with, along with Seidl’s nephew, Severin Fiala, in this vicious and expertly-crafted arthouse piece full of malevolence and wicked twists, set in a slick modern house buried in the Austrian countryside.
In the heat of summer, nine-year-old Elias is enjoying the school hols with his twin brother Lukas (played superbly by debut actors of the same name). They appear normal boys: swimming, exploring the woods, and keeping giant cockroaches as pets. But in the pristine lakeside home, their TV exec mother has made some draconian changes. After a relationship breakdown, she is recovering from facial surgery and bandaged up literally like a ‘mummy’, in a draconian new regime (to assist healing) she has banned all friends from visiting the house while her recuperation takes place in total privacy. Nothing wrong with that, but the boys misinterpret her behaviour as a sinister sign that things domestic are going downhill and start to wonder whether this is an imposter or really their mother. The more they question her for re-assurance, the more fractious and distant, though strangely vulnerable and scary, she becomes. Reacting against her instinctively, the boys become convinced that their former warm and affectionate parent is a strange intruder, and decide to take control of the situation with a series of unpleasant and downright vicious tests.
Franz and Fiala create an atmosphere of mounting suspense with clever editing, minimal dialogue and the use of innocent techniques that appear more sinister and unsettling when taken out of context: window blinds that appear to signal morse code; a bloodshot eye in the bathroom eye; crunchy biscuits that sounds like cockroaches – all harmless in themselves yet unsettling and this startling paean to unbequemlichkeit, in this context. Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography switches between lush landscapes, sterile interiors and suggestive modern art to inculcate a sense of bewilderment and unease. Susanne Wuest is perfectly cast as the icy, skeletal blond matriarch with menace. The use of several characters to enforce local religious traditions and sensibilities help to ramp up tension and subversive humour: the overweight Red Cross couple, the sinister Sexton and a Catholic priest. The innocent boys transform into everyday psychopaths due to their lack of early maternal love or support, bring to mind those terrible kids from The Shining, The Innocents and even Cronenburg’s The Brood. With the complex manipulation of sound and music, this is a very clever film which contrasts images of visceral revulsion with those of serene beauty, as reality and fantasy start to blur. MT
NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | REVIEWED AT VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2014