Filmmaker Joanna Hogg wants you to feel unsettled in The Eternal Daughter, her third with The Souvenir series. The film deftly and hauntingly explore themes of trauma and the pangs of remembrance through a story about a mother and a daughter (both played by Tilda Swinton); the setting is a secluded old castle-turned-hotel surrounded by fog and woods, and the sounds of chill winds filtering through the wooden cracks further add to the eerieness. But minutes into the film, a sense of uneasiness germinates outside the frames and into the minds of the audience, for this is a film that takes all time to reveal itself and you cannot trust anything you are shown. By that, I mean that The Eternal Daughter shows its trump cards but also lies about them. Everything about this film seems unreliable, which would work if there was more to back it.
Julie takes her mother Rosalind on her birthday to an old castle where the latter spent most of her life in. Julie wants to make a film about her mother’s life but struggles with the dilemma of if that would be trespassing. Further, we also realise that her mother is a puzzle she cannot solve and the intricacies of the relationship add more burden on Julie’s shoulders. She is also kept awake at night by a peculiar noise from the top floor window, and she spends the nights walking through the dark, lonely stairwells, halls, and courtyards of the hotel. The metaphorical and literal supernatural apparition that she witnesses add to the tension in the atmosphere.
The Eternal Daughter (English)
Tracing through the stay of this mother and daughter in this secluded, The Shining-esque hotel, The Eternal Daughter feels like a lucid dream on a cold night. From start to finish, everything about it is in true old Hollywood style, from the music (‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106: I. Andante tranquillo’) to the grainy film look. The play on the minds of the audience begins right from the beginning, with how Hogg chooses to frame the proceedings — we never see both Julie and Rosalind in the frame together. With Swinton painting both characters with distinct strokes, this experiential distance on the big screen does itch. The framing method (some frames are even mirrored randomly creating an illusion of sorts) is the first of the film’s many attempts to throw disarray on the otherwise sober experience. These abnormalities are how the film builds itself in our minds, but a few of them — like how the hotel receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) hums the abovementioned theme music — come across as petty antics.
The unsettling feeling of the film’s psychological play reaches a new high when you begin to notice how it reverses its own attempted subversion to throw you off. From the first time Julie records her mother at the dinner table to the hotel staff’s complete ignorance of Rosalind’s presence, Bill’s (a worker at the hotel, played by Joseph Mydell) refusal of Julie’s dinner invitation, and his spending time with Rosalind, every odd scene shows the probability of the long-drawn puzzle being solved, but it doesn’t. This is also a film with muted dramatic tempo; it’s not the dialogue or the action but the pure audio-visual experience of it that bears any scope for drama.
It is only towards the end does the film take any effort to spell more than it likes to. Other than Hogg’s ability to use the hotel to create a sense of tangible physical space, it is Swinton who is most impressive in her dual roles. Thanks to her, we see how, even though Julie and Rosalind are often together in the scene and all alone in the frame, there is a sense of tug-of-war between these similar but distinct characters.
The Eternal Daughter, a spiritual sequel of Hogg and Swinton’s The Souvenir films, is about a daughter who struggles to understand her mother and her attachment to her, and a filmmaker who doesn’t know if she can make a film about a person she doesn’t fully know of. It’s only unfortunate that you spend more on peeling its many layers that sometimes bear no fruit than experiencing the haunting, devastating nature of what it speaks about.
The Eternal Daughter is currently running in theatres