Youf you’ve seen or read a ghost story anytime in the past 100 years, you’ll probably guess the secret of The Eternal Daughter—playing in competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival—in the first few minutes. But knowing a secret isn’t the same as parsing a mystery. And that’s what writer-director Joanna Hogg is doing here: she seeks to unravel the ways in which we relate to our parents as they age, how we try to listen to them and understand their experiences. Perhaps we can transfer their experiences into our lives, and carry their spirit forward. Or maybe we need to recognize that only our lives are ours to live—and our parents’ experiences, while they may inform who we are, exist on a plane out of our reach.
That’s just one of several possible interpretations of this gorgeous and enigmatic movie, which is a sort of coda to Hogg’s superb semi-autobiographical diptych The Souvenir2019 The Souvenir: Part II2021), where she relates her experiences as a young filmmaker. You can read the entire article here those films, Hogg’s stand-in is Julie, played by Honor Swinton Byrne; Julie’s mother is played by Swinton Byrne’s mother in real life, Tilda Swinton. In The Eternal Girl,Swinton is a double role. She plays the part of Julie, a successful filmmaker, as well as her mother Rosalind, who is aging. To celebrate Rosalind’s birthday, Julie has booked a celebratory weekend at an inn in Wales, an old country manor where Rosalind had spent time as a child during the Second World War. Julie arranged the weekend to be a selfless gesture for her mother, in order that she might be able to recall pleasant memories. But she’s a filmmaker at heart, and consciously or otherwise, she wonders if her mother’s recollections might be of use in her work.
Rosalind and Julie are the first guests to arrive at this grim, stately, cold place. The rude front-desk manager, Carly-Sophia Davies, has informed them that the same room Julie booked previously is no longer available. With unerring politeness, Julie works out the problem and gets Rosalind settled—her speckled spaniel Louis has come along on the trip, and he stretches alongside her on the bed, half watchdog, half lazy pasha. (Louis is played by Swinton’s own dog, also named Louis.)
Swinton plays Julie, who is a filmmaker trying to get to know her mother more
Sandro Kopp—Eternal Daughter Productions Limited/British Broadcasting Corporation
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Julie hopes to get some work done while she’s there, as Rosalind sifts through her memories of the place. At dinner in the evenings—they’re the only people in the dining room, with the surly desk clerk serving as waiter—Rosalind recalls being a little girl happily jumping with her cousins from sofa to sofa in the drawing room. But other, more painful recollections surface too, and while Julie winces as she hears of her mother’s suffering, she has also surreptitiously hit the “record” button on her phone. Is she trying to give something to her mother—a pleasant long weekend away, a chance to reminisce—or is she hoping to take something for herself?
This all takes place inside a large, uncomfortable house, which creaks in the dark, making its centuries-old pains and aches well known. Louis jumps out of bed as though summoned to it by the specter, when suddenly a door closes like a whisper in the middle night. Julie starts to search the misty ground frantically. Though it had seemed earlier that the churlish desk clerk was the hotel’s only employee, Julie encounters another worker there, a kindly presence who joins in the search for Louis. (He’s played by Joseph Mydell, who radiates generosity and warmth.) Meanwhile, Julie worries—and worries—about her mother, trying to take the best care of her, trying to give her happiness, while feeling she’s falling far short of the mark.
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Hogg has a lot of fun with this, playing on horror classics. Exterior shots of this sad old inn, half-bathed in moonlight and bearing witness to the notes of an eerie flute soundtrack, recall cerebral ghosty tales like Robert Wise’s Shirley Jackson adaptation The Haunting.Hogg, who speaks through double Tildas, makes ghost stories a powerful way for people to experience grief and regret. Tilda, as Julie with her chic, asymmetrical hairstyle, is efficient but also anxious, determined to do the right things even though she doesn’t know what it is. Tilda’s Rosalind is a star with her moon-silver hair and papery skin. A pair of elegantly printed clothes are her choice; she also wears a handbag made from leather and is found on the ground by her bed.
Their upper-class-mother-daughter conversations are polite and stiff, perhaps a bit strange to American ears; both skitter away from intimate revelations and meticulously avoid expressing anything that might be called emotion. Warmth and tenderness are fluttering beneath their words like gentle butterflies. Hogg once again shows something intimate with her in this dreamy, elegiac haunt story. Rosalind to Julie is both Delphic as well as the source for great, enduring love. The Eternal Daughter isn’t just a ghost story but a song, sung by a daughter to her mother across a small table at dinner, or across the space that remains when the people we love have left us.
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