In The Eyes of My Mother, writer-director Nicolas Pesce flatlines all emotionality and intellectualism, offering images and scenarios that exist in a void of contrivance. There are no reasons for the characters to do what they do here beyond the necessity of the jerry-rigged plot, which borrows from dozens of other sources and abounds in ludicrous dime-store Freudian intrigue and Oedipal obsessions that are common of self-consciously arty horror films. There’s no discernable theme or resonance either, beyond a smug belief in the inherent truthfulness of cruelty for cruelty’s sake that suggests hours spent studying the early work of Michael Haneke, or recent films like Goodnight Mommy and Tom Six’s Human Centipede sequels.
The Eyes of My Mother is yet another film about a sexually frustrated misfit who dismembers and tortures people in an effort to preserve her incestuous familial arrangement. Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) is a beautiful gothic brunette with supernaturally large eyes who lives in a remote farmhouse with her father (Paul Nazak). As with the homes of most crazy people in pretentious horror movies, the habitat is untouched by modernity, suggesting a life spent forever stuck in the hypocritically repressive fugue state of the 1950s-era United States. We learn in a long prologue that Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini) was beaten to death by a home invader (Will Brill), whom Francisca now keeps locked in a barn as a surrogate dog and sex slave, his eyes removed and vocal cords severed. Her mother, once a doctor in Portugal, dissected cow heads with Francisca, teaching her the structure of human eyes, so as to contextualize and justify the atrocities that Pesce eventually springs.
As gross as the Human Centipede sequels are, Six understands that he’s committing an act of contempt. Said contempt is opportunistic and pointless, but everyone indulging Six realizes that he at least knows where he stands. By contrast, Pesce works in a mode of faux-religious solemnity that’s obnoxiously self-deceiving, considering the lack of curiosity and empathy that he displays toward his characters, who regard death with a cold and dull impassivity that’s meant to bolster the film’s uncompromising rep.
Pesce appears to believe that his exploitation tactics are kin to the work of Ingmar Bergman and Béla Tarr: The black-and-white cinematography is composed of harsh shadows and stark angles, so that we sense that an existential point is being landed, though there’s actually nothing beneath the shock theatrics. The torture scenes are the only moments in the film that are staged with sensorial vividness, with Pesce lingering—and with a fascination that’s appallingly sexual—on a close-up of the knotted face of a woman as she gurgles through her violated vocal cords and Francisca binds her.
Though The Eyes of My Mother strives to be audacious and galvanizing, it’s easily shaken off as an exercise in stunted necrophilia erotica. Francisca is a fetish object rather than a character, and Pesce moves her through a variety of lifeless poses, often with show-off camera placements that absurdly assume the perspectives of inanimate objects. In the end, the film’s obsession with bondage and perverted desire feels borrowed rather than lived-in, suggesting a child’s retelling of a salacious joke.