Download: NYFF Review: The Eternal Daughter
For a director who has mostly helmed understated character dramas, Joanna Hogg digs deep into the cinematic language of horror for The Eternal Daughter. Brimming with mood, atmosphere, and punctuated sound design, her follow-up to her two-part Souvenir saga plays with the same theme of artistic creation in the face of grief. Only this go around, Hogg dips significantly into a style and genre one might not expect from her.
The film follows Julie and her mother Rosalind (both played by Tilda Swinton, the latter in convincing age makeup) as they seemingly visit a gothic, haunted hotel Rosalind had been to long ago. They’re celebrating Rosalind’s birthday as Julie tries to nail her next movie script. Hogg, who doubles as screenwriter, can’t resist making her protagonists troubled filmmakers, a meta nod that feels ever so slightly tired immediately following The Souvenir films.
But Julie’s occupation hardly gets in the way of Hogg’s assured and effective direction. The Eternal Daughter is weird as hell. Almost never do the two main characters share the same frame, which always feels like a stylistic choice more than a budgetary one. There’s distance in their relationship, as well as in how Hogg shoots them individually. This is a film of intense closeups juxtaposed to empty spaces. Effectively a horror film, tension is derived from our waiting for something to enter said empty space. But what Hogg achieves when our fears go unfulfilled isn’t just relief, but sadness.
Loneliness pervades The Eternal Daughter, filling its empty gothic tower with emotion and expectation. The most common decoration around the hotel is mirrors, frames within frames that Julie and Rosalind fill only with themselves, one at a time. Hogg also follows a suggestively odd set of rules. For example, when Julie and her mother sit down for dinner, the camera never shows us their plates, though they talk almost incessantly about what they’ve ordered. Such flourishes add to the overall uneasy vibe of the film.
But these stylistic clues peppered throughout also point to familiar narrative tricks. Unfortunately, Hogg has not concocted anything deeper than the obvious. For all the buildup the film’s style conjured, the payoff feels cheap and easy, as if the script more or less suggested the ending to you from the beginning. And thus, this is where Hogg trips in the language of mystery and anticipation.
But even so, it’s impossible to walk away from The Eternal Daughter without admiration. Swinton is reliably strong throughout, and newcomer Carly-Sophia Davies steals every scene she’s in as the sassy and lazy front desk woman slash waitress. Backing them up, of course, is a visual style that consistently offers treat after treat.
In the end, the true ghosts of the film are the ones that haunt us from the inside. It’s a cliché. You’ve seen it done before, likely better and subtler than here. But it’s hard not to praise a strong filmmaker expanding her toy box with surprises and the occasional shiver. The Eternal Daughter may not offer the kind of long-lasting souvenirs of the director’s previous work, but it may still be her most flat-out enjoyable watch yet.