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LFF 2022 Review: The Eternal Daughter – “atmospheric, melancholy, musing on memory, creativity and regret”

Tilda Swinton plays a mother and daughter in writer-director Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II. The Eternal Daughter could be viewed as an epilogue to those films, set in the present, decades on from film school in the 1980s. But the story also works as a standalone piece, and the scene is quickly set for a modern riff on the classic ghost story.

The film opens with filmmaker Julie Hart and her elderly mother Rosalind, along with faithful dog Louis (great canine performance throughout) in a taxi driving up a misty, Welsh country road. The driver regales Julie with a hammy ghost story before they pull up to a country manor.

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This spooky-looking old house, like Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, is grand, yet oppressive. As in that book, there are undercurrents of class commentary, as well as the weight of buried secrets in this story. The estate once belonged to Rosalind’s aunt, and she spent time there as a girl. These are old-money people, so much is unsaid in the way they communicate.

Things get off to a bumpy start in an amusing exchange between Julie and the hotel’s receptionist/manager/waitress, (a brilliantly blunt Carly-Sophia Davis) over the room booking. She’s an irritated 20-something, counting the hours until she can clock off with her fast-driving, electronic music-blasting boyfriend.

The trip is part preparation for Julie’s next film, and part nostalgic getaway for Rosalind. But the filmmaker wrestles with the impact unearthing old memories might have on her mother. The effect of Swinton’s largely shot-reverse-shot performance gives it an eerie, doppelgänger effect. Julie studies her mother’s face for signs she is feeling ok as her birthday approaches, and Rosalind bats her away for being “a fusspot”.

From the first night, it’s clear all is not quite right in the old hotel. Despite the apparent mix-up over rooms, there are no other guests around. Julie can’t sleep and hears strange noises at night. The only other member of staff is Bill (Joseph Mydell), the hotel’s gentle, flute-playing night manager, who becomes an accidental confidante to both Julie and her mother at different points.

In one fireside conversation with Bill, Rosalind reveals her disappointment that Julie didn’t have children, which is overheard by her daughter. On another sleepless night, Julie runs into him during a moment of crisis and unloads in a way she never would in front of her mother.

The atmosphere is strange and unsettling too, amplified by Ed Rutherford’s cinematography, Stéphane Collonge’s production design. Corridors are filled with an eerie green glow, a woman’s face appears in a window, and fog-covered gargoyles look menacing as night falls.

Jovan Ajder’s sound design also dials up the tension, with the howling wind and a score that messes with our perception of diegetic and nondiegetic sound.

Clipped, naturalistic exchanges between characters are shot through with Hogg’s signature dry humour. But while Rosalind keeps a stiff upper lip and bristles at recalling painful memories – Julie’s vulnerability comes through in some of the film’s quietest moments. As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that whatever is haunting Julie is probably closer to home than anything lurking in this creepy old house. It’s an existential ghost story, which reveals its hand subtly.

There are moments where Hogg appears to be playing with us, as well as with gothic horror and mystery tropes. At one point Rosalind says “Have you worked it out yet?”, as if drilling a small hall in the fourth wall, but never fully knocking it down. She plays with the ghost story form and makes something deeply personal. Like Deborah Levy’s trilogy of living memoirs – Hogg explores the balance of creative fulfilment and domestic expectation and questions that become more urgent in middle age. The interior lives and desires of creative women is what makes this film, as with Hogg’s other films so rich.

It won’t connect with everyone, which is true of most of Hogg’s work. But this atmospheric, melancholy, musing on memory, creativity and regret haunted me in the best way.

The Eternal Daughter was screened as a special presentation at LFF 2022.

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