Motherhood involves lots of changing: changing diapers, bottles, blankets, and towels each time they’re soiled, with no end in sight as the child and the responsibilities keep growing. From British filmmaker Faye Jackson, Changeling makes motherhood look like a personal hell and a ceaseless waking nightmare prompted by lack of sleep.
In the light of day, an exhausted new mother (Lara Belmont) sits on a park bench with her baby and tries to quell the infant’s cries. Nightfall offers no respite as she tries to feed the baby in her dark apartment, keep things clean, and face bodily fluids and slime that seem to slither across every surface.
She seems to be caring for her baby entirely alone, with nothing but the infant’s shrieks to drown out the silence — until suddenly, she is not alone. There is something there in her apartment; something we cannot see or identify but can feel existing and pervading beyond the edge of the frame.
Perhaps this is nothing but a mother descending into madness and suffering from insomnia-induced hallucinations, but it seems that something is changing around them, metamorphoses swirling their surroundings. She tries to protect her child from the revolting sights appearing in her home and threatening to swallow them up, and the film fixates on her fear and fierce defense of her child against whatever comes their way.
Changeling is entirely dialogue-free beyond the sounds of the baby’s incessant crying, and the mother’s sighs and exasperated exclamations of “No.” While the baby and the mysterious force in their home may be what drew our immediate fascination, it’s Lara Belmont’s silent performance that carries this nightmare — she has a magnetic pull urging us to delve deeper into her character’s darkness.
A “changeling” in folklore typically refers to a fairy creature surreptitiously swapped with a human infant, though in this film the potential evil of the baby seems the least of our concerns. Instead, it seems even more likely that the mother has been substituted with a strange version of herself, or that her everyday surroundings replaced with malicious visions. Some of the murkiness about what exactly is going on is never resolved, and Jackson offers far more in the way of atmosphere and gorgeously dark shots than she does in the plot. The film ends with no name given to the baby or creature, and no answers given to what exactly is afflicting this little family.
We see her clutching her baby close, looking out into the darkness, and cut to black on the sound of a howl — which we are not sure came from an animal, the child, or the mother herself.
Changeling is an almost-silent-film nightmare but is also reminiscent of the work of Jennifer Kent in its exploration of the themes of motherhood and meaningful creatures. It signals the presence of another female talent in horror whose next work will be eagerly awaited; Jackson deftly captures the unsettling and unnerving in each dimly-lit frame, and her searing style marks her as a filmmaker to watch. Changeling’s ambiguity might leave you crying out for more, but it helps us empathize with exhausted mothers’ lack of sleep — because soon it will start keeping you up at night.