‘The Eternal Daughter’ review: Tilda Swinton sees double in Joanna Hogg’s mother-daughter gothic ghost story [A-] | NYFF
Late in Joanna Hogg’s exquisite autobiographical b-side, The Souvenir Part II, our protagonist finds herself wandering through a hall of mirrors. Julie Hart (Honor Swinton Byrne) has been through a lot, to put it mildly. Her love for the seemingly sophisticated yet deceptive Anthony was doomed when he overdosed on heroin, and she’s now forced to put herself back together. She thinks depicting this formative relationship in her student film with painstaking accuracy will help, but she stumbles and lacks confidence throughout the filmmaking process, irritating her collaborators. So when Julie finally premieres her student film, aptly titled “The Souvenir,” it feels like a triumph. Instead of watching the version of her student film that we’ve seen her shoot, though, we observe the Julie that we know drifting through highly-stylized, fantastical stages of her life as a young artist. She wanders through a hall of mirrors and sees versions of herself reflected back to her. She can’t run from these ghosts though. They will always be a part of her and more specifically, her art.
Reflections and versions of the self eerily run through Hogg’s latest film, The Eternal Daughter. Here, though, we step away from 1980s London and into present-day (very foggy) Flintshire, Wales. Hogg creates a lush, spooky gothic atmosphere, captured beautifully in 16mm by cinematographer Ed Rutherford. The old creaking trees, the whistling wind, and the dusty glow of light in the distance call to mind the works of past English masters like Nicolas Roeg and Alfred Hitchcock. But the stunning Gothic mansion ahead isn’t Rebecca’s Manderley. It’s the Moel Famau Hotel, and two guests have just arrived. Hogg instantly disarms the audience with the incredible revelation that her frequent collaborator and childhood friend, Tilda Swinton plays both guests, holding a dual role as mother and daughter.
It’s worth noting that familiarity with Hogg’s two previous films certainly enriches the viewing experience. Still, The Eternal Daughter is a poignant, standalone story about mothers and daughters and a continuation of Hogg’s exploration of autobiographical filmmaking. Hogg’s meta-casting is delightfully mind-bending as Swinton plays the adult version of Julie and her elderly mother, Rosalind. She gives a touching masterclass as a version of the character that her real-life daughter previously played and her fictional mother by creating two incredibly distinctive characters. What could have felt like a gimmick or a decision made due to COVID-19 restrictions feels particularly touching here and authentic to the way that mothers and daughters move through the world. No matter how different they are, mothers and daughters provide a mirror to each other, highlighting not only characteristics and flaws but also a deep understanding of the other. They look at each other and see either where they’ve been or where they’re going–ghosts of the past and future, if you will.
It turns out that the Moel Famau Hotel was once an ancestral family home, and the two women have returned for a birthday trip for Rosalind, under the pretense of Julie’s next filmmaking endeavor. She is interested in a different version of autobiographical filmmaking and wants to document her mother’s memories before she dies. But something is bothering Julie and she’s a bit neurotic and on edge. She isn’t sure she has the right to make this film about her mother; the need to care for her only amplifies her anxiety. It doesn’t help that the only other person in the hotel when they arrive is a curt, unbothered young employee (Carly Sophia-Davies). Davies is an absolute delight in this small ensemble. Her bone-dry English humor and Hogg’s knack for poking at upper-class tendencies are a perfect match. The hotel is vacant, with no soul in sight, but they have trouble getting a room. It’s here that Hogg makes us wonder what is real and unreal. Why is no one else here? And if no one else is here, why is the receptionist making it so difficult for Julie and her mother to get the room they booked? There may be something unknowable about this hotel and its inhabitants.
It’s ideal then that Hogg depicts the hotel as if it’s another character in the film, guiding the viewer through all of its nooks and crannies with fascination. The camera lingers like a watchful voyeur in the long dark hallways and at the bottom of the main staircase. As Julie begins to wander the hotel at night to take Louis (Swinton’s actual spaniel) outside or investigate the sounds she hears, we get unsettling references to Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo. An intense, bright green light pulls Julie out into the hallway while the camera purposely withholds. Like Vertigo, The Eternal Daughter is a film about feeling haunted by emotions and memories. While the inspired sound design makes it feel like something supernatural could be at play, Julie’s trepidation and fear of the unknown out in the foggy night parallel her hesitations in making this film. As she records voice memos of her mother recounting her memories from her time growing up at Moel Famau, she grows frustrated by her inability to truly know her mother.
Rosalind only gives fragments of the stories she tells as if she’s meandering through the rooms attached to each memory. While Rosalind and Julie are effectively doppelgangers, they also completely misunderstand each other and would rather exchange small talk and fuss over each other. Rosalind’s sadness comes to light in a particularly heartbreaking moment when Julie overhears her speaking with the only other staff member in the hotel, Bill. Oddly, Bill, who seems to appear out of thin air, shares the name of Rosalind’s recently deceased husband and Julie’s father. Rosalind shares her disappointment in Julie not becoming a mother, specifying that she would have been a great mother because “she has the capacity for the practical magic of love.” On the surface, this feels like a fear many women have, the disappointment others may have if they do not have children. However, for Julie, her films are her children. It’s somewhat elusive, but perhaps Hogg connects this scene with Julie’s fears of what her mother would think of this film. Will this film come to fruition? Will she share that practical magic of love with another child, this time a film about her mother?
At Rosalind’s birthday dinner celebration, Hogg delicately clicks everything into place. Every exhausting, subtle, and profound thing about being a mother or a daughter is wrapped up in this film’s reflective catharsis. Looking at your mother or daughter is like looking into a broken mirror. Your reflection is there, but the other person’s memories and pain are somehow yours too. Mothers and daughters always take on each other’s burdens; they must feel what the other feels. By making this film, Julie (and Hogg) ensure that the memories and experiences of her mother will be alive forever. Art lives in perpetuity, and this film is an eternal daughter of its own.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. A24 will release The Eternal Daughter in select theaters on December 2.