The phrase “Joanna Hogg’s Shutter Island” is not a line that many critics expect to bust out in their lifetimes, but with her sixth feature the British director has made a fascinating foray into genre cinema that, while firmly in keeping with the rest of her quasi-autobiographical works, makes a surprising departure from the upper-middle-class realism of her signature film The Souvenir.
Venice competition entry The Eternal Daughter stays very much in the same social milieu, and reunites Hogg with Tilda Swinton in a dual role, but there is also a tremendous sense of unease here, whether one sees it as a spooky story about a woman’s search for self or what it’s like to book a staycation in the UK these days.
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Swinton plays Julie, a filmmaker who is taking her mother Rosalind (also Swinton) on a birthday trip to an ancestral home, which is now a hotel. Julie has two aims in mind, one is to share some time with her now-widowed mother before it’s too late, but she is also working on a movie project about her mother’s life, which she soon discovers will involve raking up some painful secrets. Unlike The Souvenir movies, however, which covered similar territory, The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story, wreathed in fog and evoking, very effectively, the specter of M.R. James and his existential chillers.
To Hogg’s credit, this conceit is adhered to and not abandoned. As they arrive at the hotel, mother and daughter hear the taxi driver’s tale of an eerie face that once appeared at the window there, and Julie’s first night is disrupted by weird sounds that apparently only she can hear.
Julie’s mother’s dog Louis — presumably one of the actress’ own stellar pack, which featured heavily in The Souvenir Part II — begins to act strangely, crying in the night and running off when the hotel-room door mysteriously swings open. But through it all, Julie is a strangely passive character; like the lead in Hogg’s 2007 debut Unrelated, she is an observer of life, fascinated by the hotel’s rude receptionist who she spies on spending her spare time on Instagram and quarreling with her boyfriend at night when he comes to pick her up in his music-blasting car.
At first, the gothic trimmings suggest that they may just exist as a way into this story, while Julie finds her bearings in the creaky old building — shot, by the way, in the heightened style of the cult 1980s British TV show Hammer House of Horror, complete with creepy flute music. However, there is no bait and switch: the veracity of the various supernatural elements may be open to interpretation but the story stays committed to the conflict between the living and the undead. There is also a deceptively rich level of meta-textuality in the way that it does so — are we simply seeing the process that Julie is going through as she tries to make the film she wants to make? Or has she, as in the case of the protagonist in The Souvenir Part II, already made it? If one wants to take things even further, a more cerebral point would be this: who is actually the ghost here?
Such Chinese-box narratives often tend to be oblique and frustrating, not to mention pretentious, but for receptive audiences — and, let’s face it, mostly the middle-aged kind — The Eternal Daughter will hit a very strange but significant nerve as a film about that time in our lives when the things that we take for granted are suddenly snatched away. In that sense, it’s a film about absence as much as presence, and it’s fitting that the stylized closing credits bear more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic Rebecca (you can draw your own conclusions from that).
Funnily enough, this is also where exec producer Martin Scorsese’s name appears, and it is not at all a stretch to see the appeal of Hogg’s film to him in terms of overlap with Shutter Island as an unreliable-narrator story of love, guilt and denial.
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