A mysterious nighttime mist swirls through Joanna Hogg’s sorrowful, secluded “The Eternal Daughter.” It is pumped, in artificial, Hammer-horror puffs and plumes, across groves and gravel driveways. It snakes around gables topped with gargoyles, snags on hedges, rubs against dark, staring, possibly haunted windows. It shrouds the film the way the unspoken words, undefined guilt and unfulfilled duties that exist between maybe every mother and daughter can cloud the truth of their fraught, primal connection. And it is this grave film’s most apposite motif, in being beautiful and mood-making but vaporous: try to grasp it and your hand closes on nothing but a faint, damp chill.
Filmmaker Julie (Tilda Swinton), her aging mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and Rosalind’s dog Louis (Tilda Swinton’s dog Louis) arrive in a white cab one foggy night at the remote Welsh hotel that Julie has booked for a stay over Rosalind’s December birthday. One of the secrets guarded by the mansion’s imposingly eerie Gothic facade is that it was not always a hotel. It used to belong to Rosalind’s aunt Jocelyn, and as a child during the war, Rosalind stayed here. So there’s a sentimentality to Julie’s choice of the place, as well as a very slightly sneaky agenda, signalled each time she furtively hits record on her phone as Rosalind begins to reminisce: Julie is gleaning material for an upcoming project about her and her mother, though she’s finding it difficult to get started.
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Like “The Souvenir,” Hogg’s outstanding two-part meta-textual memoir, “The Eternal Daughter” is as much about an artist’s fickle relationship with her own creativity — and her struggle with the ethics of co-opting stories that do not necessarily belong to her — as it is about any interpersonal bond. And so casting her longtime friend and collaborator Swinton, who already played “Julie’s” mother “Rosalind” against her own daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne in the “Souvenir” films, as both mother and daughter here, is a logical if slightly vertiginous move.
Yet its power is arguably diminished by the slightly spoilery formality of DP Ed Rutherford’s cinematography, which never “cheats” and never uses trickery to show mother and daughter occupying the same frame. While it suits the film’s underlying themes of mother-daughter elision, of doubling, mimicry and mirroring, to have Rosalind and Julie’s conversations unfold in discrete, medium shots in which not so much as the shadow of the one ever falls across the other, it also alerts us from the outset to the nature of the story’s construction.
If Hogg were presenting her film as a straightforward drama, it would be a cunning, perhaps even crushing decision. But given the overt horror and haunted-house-movie references throughout — the canted angles of giallo; the chafing strings of Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,” which was also mined for “The Shining”; a split diopter shot straight out of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” and so on — the film comes freighted with genre expectations that it is not particularly interested in fulfilling, and soon starts to feel like an unnecessarily drawn-out wait for a reveal we know is coming from the start. The double casting of Swinton, who is predictably excellent in both roles, is certainly the key to “The Eternal Daughter,” but whether it frees the film or locks it further away is debatable.
Julie gets off on the wrong foot with the surly, subtly hostile hotel receptionist (a terrific, darkly funny screen debut from Carly-Sophia Davis), a young woman who couldn’t more obviously care less about Julie’s quite reasonable requests — for a kettle, for a meal, for the specific room she had already called to confirm. Still, once they are ensconced in their chintzy twin on the first floor (with a view not of the formal gardens as expected, but of the tacky wedding marquee set up in the grounds), Rosalind seems perfectly content to pop a little “helper” from a dainty keepsake pillbox and go to sleep.
It is Julie who lies awake night after night, in the hotel she’s told is full but sure seems otherwise unoccupied, kept up by the creaks and sighs of an old house settling, but also a faint, persistent muffled thumping that might be something more, or nothing at all. (After Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria,” this is the second time recently that Swinton has played a woman haunted by mysterious noise). “Aren’t we having a lovely time?” murmurs Rosalind cozily. It’s the kind of banal blandishment she often uses to calm her daughter’s “fussing” as the two of them, trapped to an almost comical degree in pragmatic English reserve, exchange halting pleasantries and little acts of care by day, while Julie roams the mazelike corridors and the drizzly grounds of the hotel by night.
In its best moments, including a cracklingly passive-aggressive/affectionate-aggravated birthday dinner, and a couple of exchanges with the hotel’s very “Shining”-esque night porter Bill (Joseph Mydell), there is tremendous insight into the vast and yawning gulf between the conversations we would like to have with our mothers and daughters, and the ones we actually end up having. Sometimes, no matter how resolved you are to reach down into the inexpressibly profound depths of your mutual love, guilt and remorse, all you can ever actually dredge up is some comment about the niceness of the marmalade or prettiness of the gift wrap.
The frustration of that emotional inarticulacy is truthful, but after the astonishingly vivid and satisfying “Souvenir” films, one cannot help but wish “The Eternal Daughter” similarly managed to match honesty with energy. Instead, this slight story examines the mystery of the mother-daughter bond without getting much closer to solving it, and when the mist clears is revealed to resemble the hotel it haunts, in being elegant but empty, save for those elusive echoes.
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