Haunting and mysterious from the first frame, the latest from writer/director Joanna Hogg is the story of filmmaker Julie and her elderly mother Rosalind (both played quite distinctly by Tilda Swinton), who decide to take a short holiday at a hotel that used to be the family home when the elder woman was just a girl. And in case you were wondering, yes, these are the same two mother-daughter characters from The Souvenir & The Souvenir Part II, now both played by Swinton. Julie is there to begin work on her next film, but is having trouble concentrating, or even sleeping, because of strange sounds she hears at night, as well as a general haunting vibe she gets from her surroundings. In more ways than one, The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story, but most of the ghosts are powerful memories and family secrets that must be unpacked between the two women.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the heavy lifting to make the film such an emotional and atmospheric success is done by Swinton, but the overall haunting feeling of the once-grand manor comes from Hogg’s confident and fragile direction. There is clearly something mysterious going on in this place, but it never feels threatening, nor is it meant to be overly scary. This movie is about that under-the-skin feeling that troubles you until you deal with it directly. For most of the film, we never see or hear another guest in the entire facility, outside of a bristly front desk clerk (Carly-Sophia Davies) and an older caretaker named Bill (Joseph Mydell), who is far more helpful and comforting, almost as if he’s there for that express purpose.
The two women couldn’t be more different, while also clearly cut from the same cloth; and they’ve grown more distant since we last saw them together. Julie is expressive and emotional, while Rosalind is reserved, quiet, accommodating to a fault, and never wants to be a bother, even when it’s clear her health is declining. There is a series of sequences in which the women have meals at the same table in the very empty dining room, and each exchange feels like one of the thousand small cuts that will eventually defeat them.
At a certain point in The Eternal Daughter (executive produced by Martin Scorsese, in case you were wondering), it becomes clear that Julie is attempting to write a story about the relationship with her mother, and some aspect of this trip is holding her back. There’s something of a reveal near the end of the film that I don’t think is particularly shocking, nor is it really meant to be, but that doesn’t keep it from being staggeringly heartbreaking.
The movie is a memory piece, as well as a piece about memory, and how it folds in upon itself to the point where it traps us, blocks us creatively, and hopefully sets us free to learn what we need to from it. The film feels more substantive than Hogg’s earlier works, but it’s also a natural evolution in her growth as both an artist and archivist of her family’s history (assuming any of what these two characters are dealing with is based in reality). The Eternal Daughter is a mystifying and hypnotic work that’s as melancholy as it is lovely.
The film opens theatrically on Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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