Two of 2015’s most provocative, bold and best films have arrived in Buffalo, and this is cause for celebration. These are the types of conversation-starters that play major film festivals and have a nice shelf life on Netflix et al., but often bypass screens in the Buffalo market.
“Breathe,” the directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence. Austrian horror-thriller “Goodnight Mommy,” on the other hand, is one of the most chilling films in recent memory, the fiercely compelling story of creepy, blonde-haired twins and the woman who may (or may not) be their mother.
While “Breathe” and “Goodnight Mommy” are very different, stylistically and thematically, they are both haunting, deeply memorable experiences. Both films open Friday at the North Park Theatre; “Goodnight Mommy” also opens Friday at the Dipson Eastern Hills.
Laurent is best known in North America for her role as revenge-seeking Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII extravaganza “Inglourious Basterds.” It was the film’s finest performance, and one that deserved award consideration. She also has appeared in films such as “Beginners,” “Now You See Me” and the 2009 French hit “Le Concert.” (She even released a fine album in 2011.)
“Breathe” tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.
Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, thoughtful teen who forms a strong friendship with a girl who might be considered her opposite. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is outspoken and impulsive, a new kid in town with a mysterious, slightly questionable past.
This air of mystery makes Sarah seem slightly exotic, and to Charlie, wondrously fresh. With Charlie’s parents on the verge of splitting up, the arrival of this new friend could not seem better.
However, a few comments hint at a fracturing relationship between the two, and after Sarah joins Charlie on a family trip, things take a dark turn. Soon, Sarah is leading an effort at school to harass Charlie, who grows increasingly somber and despondent.
The scenes of Charlie’s treatment at school are breathtakingly sad, an indictment of bullying and the power of calculated persecution. Laurent and her young stars make it all believable and even understandable. Only with a melodramatic turn in the final few minutes does “Breathe” make a wrong turn.
Despite that conclusion, the film is both harsh and heartbreaking, a story of teenage wildlife as strong as the recent French classic “Blue is the Warmest Colour.”
Like “Breathe,” “Goodnight Mommy” repels and intrigues in equal measure. As strong as Laurent’s film is, however, “Mommy” is even more involving. It is, in fact, a stunningly disturbing film, one with unforgettable visuals and a wild final twist.
After an eerie opening clip set to Brahms’s “Cradle Song,” we meet blonde-haired twins Elias and Lukas (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz). They live in an isolated, ultra-modern house in Austria with their mother (Susanne Wuest).
Covered in bandages following facial surgery, mother has returned … different. She pointedly ignores Lukas, and displays behavior that confounds the twins.
After some amateur sleuthing, the brothers are convinced that the woman in their house is not their mother. How they deal with this information, and continue to search for answers, is skin-crawlingly compelling.
Indeed, there are moments in “Goodnight Mommy” that make you gasp in astonishment. Like some unholy melding of “Repulsion”/“Rosemary’s Baby”-era Polanski and “Village of the Damned,” the first narrative film from co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala has a hypnotic air of dread and a perplexing plot.
It all leads to a knockout finale, one that may make you desperate to watch the film again. While some may see it coming, these last few minutes are marvelously structured and deeply moving.
Featuring complex performances from its three leads, “Goodnight Mommy” is an off-kilter nightmare that dares you to not look away. Trust me. You will not be able to. But make sure to start mentally preparing for the cockroach scene. The first cockroach scene, that is.
Starring: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carré, Claire Keim
Director: Mélanie Laurent
Running time: 91 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent, with brief nudity, language and adult situations
The Lowdown: A French suburban teenager becomes fast friends with the rebellious new girl at school, but the friendship soon takes a dark turn. (In French with English subtitles.)
Starring: Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Director: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Running time: 99 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violent content and some nudity.
The Lowdown: The mother of twin boys returns home after cosmetic surgery, but the brothers grow suspicious that someone else has returned in her place.
Story topics: movie reviews