An atmospheric labyrinth of reflections and projections, “The Eternal Daughter” — premiering at the Venice Film Festival — expands on British director Joanna Hogg’s recent excavations into memory, both as torturous malaise and gratifying human virtue crucial to deciphering interpersonal relationships.
A master of meta storytelling, Hogg once again transmutes intimate biographical material into the dramatic foundation of her intricate cinematic monuments for this ghostly saga following a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother on a birthday holiday. They are, however, not just any progenitor-offspring duo, but characters from her last brainchildren.
Tilda Swinton, the director’s most loyal onscreen collaborator, incarnates Julie Hart, the burgeoning filmmaker and Hogg surrogate in “The Souvenir” films, but now at a more mature age. Miraculously, the actress also reprises her role as Julie’s mother, Rosalind, from the previous installments, effectively delivering a de facto “The Souvenir Part III.”
The knowledge that Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s own daughter, played Julie in the earlier chapters, intensifies the self-referential implications of this new one. A shot of the screensaver on older Julie’s cell phone late in “The Eternal Daughter,” further wedges it into “The Souvenir” cinematic universe — now a trilogy and one of the only interconnected collections of ongoing films that merits profound analysis of its formal and thematic details.
The cadence of Hogg’s latest differs from its predecessors, in that she carved “Daughter” from even quieter moments and an eerie tone that at times seems on the precipice of horror, as she hints at the existence of apparitions — and not only metaphorically. Anchored on the (dual) performance of the year, Hogg turns in an unassuming incantation of a film.
Cutting through a wall of thick fog, which won’t loosen its grasp on this area for the rest of their stay here, the two women and their dog Louis arrive at an imposing manor turned hotel in the countryside. Long before it morphed into a business, the property belonged to one of Rosalind’s aunts and is where her family found refuge during World War II.
Though the location is said to be not far from Liverpool, its opulent decorations and unnerving stillness give the impression of having crossed a portal into an otherworldly plane. There, a young female receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), clearly disinterested in the job, begrudgingly checks them in before running off in a loud car for the rest of the night.
Awakened by strange and unexplainable noises, Julie walks the halls and surveys the staircases enveloped in mesmerizing moonlight. But the aura of the place doesn’t much change during the day. The gloomy weather makes it almost impossible to distinguish between morning and evening, as if they were trapped in an atemporal space. For this hypnotic ambience, Hogg reunites with cinematographer Ed Rutherford, the craftsman behind the humble visual panache of her early projects “Exhibition” and “Archipelago.”
Most days, Rosalind lays in bed unbothered while Julie attempts to do some research for her new film, reading a book on ghost stories. At dinner, she guiltily records her mother’s anecdotes for possible use in the making of a fiction. But the unsettling charge of their accommodations slowly corrodes Julie’s already fragile emotional state. Devoted to looking after mom, the mere mention of Rosalind suffering minor unpleasantness crushes Julie and prompts her tears. But she can’t protect her from the thoughts the hotel triggers in her mother.
That dread Julie experiences has a physical embodiment in the countless mirrors and doors that she walks past and through as the camera tracks her during her nightly excursions into the darkest corners of the establishment. With each trip inside its walls or occasionally around its outside perimeter chasing Louis (who senses danger), “The Eternal Daughter” inches closer to the chance of an exorcising jump-scare that may break the tension.
The result of production designer Stéphane Collonge’s understanding of Hogg’s vision for the sets, these motifs — at times operating in unison, as when a mirror reflects a door, creating the illusion that Julie has picked between two paths — act as tangible receptors for whatever spiritual forces haunt Julie. They were witnesses to the history that unfolded around them.
“That’s what rooms do; they hold these stories,” explains Rosalind to reassure Julie, who frantically apologizes for bringing her into a place that summons painful memories.
A latter scene features Bill (Joseph Mydell, “Alex Rider”), the compassionate innkeeper, mimicking Rosalind’s sentiment that visiting once-familiar spaces can induce us to reconnect with the events that we underwent while there. Remembering involves an act of surrendering to everything that comes with reliving the past in one’s mind: both the delightful and the tragic.
This tenet encompasses Hogg’s repeated compulsion for reconstructing the most significant rooms in her life. For the first chapter of “The Souvenir,” Hogg meticulously recreated the apartment where she lived as a film-school student and where a harrowing love affair ended in despair, going so far as to bring her own furniture to the set. Both parts of “The Souvenir” were conceived within a large hangar where she used cinema as a mystical laboratory to resuscitate moments erased by the years and people who no longer exist, at least not in human form. These movies are gorgeously built ghost factories.
Of course, the most evident of all mirrors in “The Eternal Daughter” is the one created by the two lead performances, brought to life by the same person. A doubly astounding Swinton taps into the unspoken anguish that consumes Julie when an inconvenience disrupts this precious time she has allotted to demonstrate her love for her mother. That search for validation is laced with remorse for extracting her mother’s mental souvenirs of a life lived in reality to enrich the false existences she engenders on the page.
Then, simultaneously, for us, Swinton exudes a calming demeanor in the skin of Rosalind, a supportive parent still trying to figure out Julie’s chosen career and the fact that she doesn’t have any flesh-and-blood children, although she has given painful birth to her films. Few actors are as avid at unexpected reinvention, especially within the same story, as Swinton is here.
Eventually, one forgets, even if momentarily, that these two characters are variations of the same entity, Swinton, playing closely related individuals. In addition to Swinton’s markedly distinct and specific choices for each of her personas, the illusion succeeds in part due to how editor Helle le Fevre excels making it plausible for Julie and Rosalind to share the same space or to interact in an organic manner throughout the unraveling of their vacation.
As is habitual for Hogg, the point of her outstanding nesting-doll narratives are the inquiries that they raise and not the lack of facile resolution. Here she wonders how much of our personalities and fears, if any, do we absorb from those who raised us? Will there be an inherent void inside Julie if she never transitions into motherhood in the traditional sense and remains a perpetual child? Or is the “practical magic of love,” as Rosalind’s describes Julie’s attentive behavior, enough for a daughter to be forgiven of her misdeeds?
With this expansion on what she began with “The Souvenir,” Hogg enters the terrain of other recent, formally ingenious takes on parent-child bonds observed in hindsight and with a touch of magical realism, such as Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” and Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” with a dash of the supernatural longing of Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” but still perfectly embedded within Hogg’s personal preoccupations.
When some of the deliberate haziness of this moody piece dissipates as Julie’s heart finally breaks, “The Eternal Daughter” reveals itself not as the linear retelling of a single journey but perhaps that of several occasions in which mother and daughter landed in this uncanny inn, intertwined into a fluid exercise of fantastical recollection. After the youthful splendor of last year’s “The Souvenir Part II,” Hogg returns with a magnificent achievement of a more inconspicuous kind: a striking phantasm of affection, regrets, and remembered accounts that might be factually inaccurate but emotionally unfeigned.
“The Eternal Daughter” will open in US theaters later this year via A24.