After watching Hereditary – which I never blogged about, in part because of a perceived inability to say anything unique about it – I thought I’d seen it all. Hereditary is one of the most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in some time, a sickening romp through the cackling, bloody underworld of death, grief, and witchcraft combined. Nonetheless, Michael and I watched The Eyes of My Mother yesterday, a movie I decided to put on my list for comprehensive exams when I heard about it at a pop culture conference. Let me tell you: it was disturbing. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating film that said a lot about certain types of madness and (perhaps) about how such madness evolves. I’ll be including, in my piece, Michael’s take on the main character, along with my reaction to his opinion and some observations about the film in general. As a warning, this film is not for the faint of heart, and it may sit with you for awhile after you watch it. That said, let’s talk about, perhaps, the general experience of watching The Eyes of My Mother along with some of the questions it raises.
Kika Magalhaes plays Francesca, a woman who, as a young girl, watched her mother get brutally stabbed in the bath tub. Her mother was a surgeon in Portugal who moved to a remote, woodsy location in America and taught her daughter all about operating on the body – including the cow eye’s likeness to the human eye and how to effectively chop off a cow’s head. When her mother is killed, Francesca’s father treats her mother’s death with odd nonchalance and chains the killer, Charlie, up in a barn. Francesca removes Charlie’s eyes and tongue and keeps him, for years, as a sort of pet, long after the death of her father. Throughout the movie we glimpse a series of Francesca’s violent actions and her concomitant loneliness and fear of isolation. When she’s caught by police at the end of the film, the sound of a gun shot with no corresponding picture leaves the fate of Francesca – and the son she’s kidnapped from another woman and taken as her own – in question, although as viewers we assume that she’s been shot for her deeds.
That’s a brief summary of a troubling movie. The experience of watching the film is, of course, much different than reading a paragraph-long synopsis. I thought that I’d sum up the movie briefly, then write about some scenes in more depth beneath the synopsis as I discuss some questions it raises. We open with Francesca’s mom showing her, in detail, what a cow’s eyes are like, and splitting the center of the eye open with a knife so Francesca can glimpse what the eye is made of. We also hear the motion of the saw as she cuts off the cow’s head. The film is graphic, and though in some scenes it uses gore sparingly, a combination of visual and sound effects, along with actual and implied brutality, made me cringe on multiple occasions.
Soon after this initial carving and chopping transpires, a strange man approaches Francesca and her mother on their farm. His affect is particularly striking. I should mention that I watched this film for my comprehensive exams, and I’m studying madness depicted as a monstrosity for those exams. In other words, I’m interested in how we make the so-called mad person look “monstrous” in horror movies. One way is to highlight a mad individual’s highly unusual affective qualities, if they exist, which is certainly done in this film. The killer, Charlie, has a maniacal laugh, dark circles under his eyes, and an unnerving, near-animalistic smile. Of course, Charlie doesn’t become the film’s main character, but he marks the first appearance of a “mad monster” in the film. When Francesca’s father comes home and opens the bathroom door, we see Charlie as wild-eyed and practically salivating as he moves a knife up and down frenetically to kill Francesca’s mother. Charlie, as the mad monster, becomes, in that scene, a metonymic representation of our worst fears, a sort of demon from hell who’s come to kill Francesca’s mother for no reason—or, as he admits to Francesca later, because of the high it gives him.
Francesca’s father comes home and acts more or less indifferent about the death of her mother—a reaction that strikes the viewer as odd and insinuates that there’s something unsettlingly strange about the man. During one scene, the father and a young Francesca transport the corpse of Francesca’s mother to a grave site in an old wheelbarrow. The scene is highly intriguing but indisputably gruesome – like a grotesque, inverted version of a Norman Rockwell painting. The entire film is, one should note, in black and white, which takes us out of our comfortable, familiar surroundings. Francesca, who kills some individuals and plucks out the eyes and tongues of (two, specific) others, leaving them chained in her shed for a portion of time, is an unlikely mad monster. She’s as beautiful as she is intriguing, and though she doesn’t say much, her speech does have a certain charm when she talks. In that way, she is somewhat akin to a character like Norman Bates – the mad monster/killer who is a little awkward but, in his or her own way, both attractive and alluring. Though of course we’re never rooting for Francesca as we watch the film, we also don’t hate her, and we don’t (at least I didn’t) objectify her as some bizarre, untouchable killer who I’d walk away from if I saw her on the street and didn’t know her secret brutality. Perhaps therein lies her power; perhaps because she appears so normal, Francesca is an intriguing character.
One should note that Francesca is also a sympathetic character, insofar as a killer who is also a bit of a butcher and a bit sadistic can be sympathetic in a film. Michael’s theory on Francesca is that she learned to handle the cutting and manipulating of the human body with the degree of mechanical detachment all doctors/surgeons need from her mother, but her mother died before she could help Francesca link that detachment to formal medical training and care for other human beings. For most of Francesca’s life, she lives with her aloof, unusual father, devoid of any real human love or contact. The combination of these factors leads to Francesca’s indifference toward the butchered human body, her tendency to chain eyeless, tongue-less people in sheds or kill people for ostensibly no reason but the thrill (she admits in a later scene that like the aforementioned Charlie, she finds the “thrill” of killing people highly satisfying, too). I think this is an intriguing perspective. My understanding of the film is that the director, Nicolas Pesce, wanted to closely examine the workings and tendencies, the life, personality, and activities of a serial killer. By showing the conditions of Francesca’s upbringing that lead her to commit such acts, he does this with a unique, sympathetic eye. Indeed, by highlighting her fear of loneliness, her love for her parents and her (kidnapped) son, she becomes complex, multi-dimensional, and vulnerable. She’s not only a brutal animal who lives to slaughter people, although she’s uncomfortably fond of violence.
And still, I have reservations about attributing Francesca’s tendencies solely to an isolated upbringing with her father. After all, only days after Francesca’s mother is killed, she finds Charlie chained in the barn (an action her father took) and cuts out his eyes and tongue, in a weird sort of effort to dominate him and keep him as a pet. “Why would I want to kill you when you’re my only friend?” she asks, before feeding the now-blind, tongue-less man a dead mouse. As such, she seems confused about human relationships and detached from the human body before she’s had much time to grow-up without her mother, a point that indicates some innate proclivity toward human mutilation. I don’t think this makes Francesca any less sympathetic; indeed, I think the movie paints her as a disturbed, sick individual, and as I said, insofar as anyone can empathize with a serial killer, the film leads us in small ways to do so—a fact that probably accounts for both the acclaim and the condemnation it’s received. When I couple Michael’s reaction with my own, I come to the conclusion that the film raises some interesting nature-nurture questions about the origins of a killer, questions it doesn’t fully answer but only about which it speculates.
On a somewhat unrelated note, as I’ve studied horror I’ve started to become interested in the caretaking motif that the genre embraces in so many different, disturbing ways. Indeed, caretaking or caregiving seems central to the horror genre; whether Jack Torrance is caring for the overlook hotel in The Shining or Eleanor is caring for (or has just finished caring for) her sick mother in The Haunting, caretaking/caregiving remains at the heart of many effective horror stories. It seems that such caring (or lack of it) always comes with a gruesome, taxing component, an element of caring that is often traumatic, either for the caregiver or the person being cared for. In this front-and-center portrait of a serial killer, caregiving takes on a newer, even more grotesque dimension. If you think Annie Wilkes is a brutal caregiver to Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery (a book I’m reading now and planning on writing about in the near future), you need look not further than Francesca in The Eyes of My Mother to realize that Annie Wilkes could be even worse.
And that is probably another typical (although not exclusive) hallmark of the “mad monster,”; he or she is a horrible caregiver, a person who inverts the practice of caring to make it grotesque (Norman Bates, for example, cares so much for his mother that he keeps her corpse in his house long past his mother’s expiration date, associating the process of caring with degradation, disgust, and abjection). When Francesca chooses to keep Charlie chained in the barn (long after her father has died) and cuts out his tongue and eyes, when she later chains another woman to the barn and cuts out her eyes and tongue, she becomes the caregiver from hell, the confused caregiver who coddles her pained, tortured, mutilated victims and feeds them slop (or dead mice) with a spoon as she lovingly caresses their heads in her lap. In such a way, horror takes our human instinct, which is to regard caregiving as an intimate, nurturing process, and upends that instinct to make it horrific. And it is more horrific in The Eyes of My Mother than in most other horror films.
Indeed, one of the most unsettling things about the film is that as I watched it is the way the images provoke feelings. I started to feel the pain of my tongue being removed, to feel the terror of my eyes being disengaged from their sockets. Of all the elements of the film that were unnerving – and as I indicated, there are many – perhaps the most stark, memorable pictures are those of the humans who have been reduced to animal status, chained in the barn with no way to taste, speak, or see. Like little, black and white, living ghosts of Jacob Marley, these images were lodged in my mind long after the film was over, and became the ultimate evidence of Francesca’s social deviation. Is she “sick,” I continue to ask myself, or is she just totally sane and evil? She seems to have a strong grasp on reality, but her erratic moods and her own confusion in the film seem to indicate that she’s a sick woman. Images of individuals chained in her barn are equally indicative of this fact
As I suggested in the introduction, if you’re easily queasy, I wouldn’t watch this movie. If your stomach can handle the more macabre, gruesome crevices of the horror pantheon, then this film is definitely worth checking out. Indeed, I’m excited to analyze it more on my comp exams, to watch it a few more times and see what else I can derive from it. One of the age-old clichés of great art is that it’s meant to both explore and express human nature. This particular piece of art (and horror in general) often approaches this task by exploring and expressing the more deviant, violent elements of human nature. The Eyes of My Mother undertakes this exploration perfectly, and after the film is over, though there is certainly a strong element of the “monstrous” in Francesca, we simultaneously see her (or I did) as very human, and we continue to raise questions about how she came to be who she is. To that end, The Eyes of My Mother will engage your attention—and it will make you think.