The Eternal Daughter: Ghost Stories as Love Stories

With The Souvenir: Part II (2021), Joanna Hogg provided a spellbinding sequel to a film that previously felt standalone. It was a stunning extension enriched by what came before, a work that made itself necessary and that elevated the pervious film through its presence. The Eternal Daughter is another sequel that we didn’t know we needed, a third chapter in a series that keeps feeling complete before it opens up once again. It is a very different chapter, though; we fast-forward to the seeming present (there is a hazy sense of time to the work) and craft an old-fashioned ghost story around our previous heroine, Julie, and her mother. Her mother, as before, is played by Tilda Swinton. Previously, Swinton’s actual daughter — Honor Swinton Byrne — played Julie (herself a fictionalised version of director and writer, Joanna Hogg); now, Tilda Swinton plays both mother and daughter. It is the film’s most interesting flourish, in keeping with a series defined by very intentional direction and wider filmmaking choices.

However, Honor Swinton Byrne is certainly missed — she so brilliantly held the previous films together. Though, Tilda Swinton is, obviously, one of our finest actors. She is also no stranger to playing multiple roles, and doing so with aplomb (check out Teknolust (2002) for the most brilliantly bizarre example). This film is a minor showpiece, showing how Swinton can craft convincingly separate characters and can melt into roles. However, there is a degree of stiltedness that the film doesn’t get around, even if it feels intentional. Hogg is such a purposeful and precise director, enjoying her works often relies on really querying the method: delving into the why and being an active audience member rather than passive observer. The Eternal Daughter is similarly rewarding, though does not feel as special as its predecessors.

Really, this is only incidentally attached to the two previous films. It is another meta-textual reflection on the filmmaker. It is a film about mothers and daughters where the filmmaker makes a film about a filmmaker making a film about her mother. As Hogg has already made two films about a filmmaker that echo her experiences starting out in film, it makes sense to use the cypher from those films — her surrogate — to play the filmmaker role. Though, this film is remarkably different from The Souvenir films. It feels like a sequel to the characters but not a continuation of their filmic worlds; perhaps why it isn’t The Souvenir: Part III (or Coda). This is a slight feeling, purposefully so, film about one core relationship — an expansion of one aspect of The Souvenir movies, but more so an extension of their ‘author’. The lack of Swinton Byrne is certainly an indicator of this change, and another way in which a potential flaw is made into an interesting feature — or just derives from a key decision.

The stilted result is also clearly there by design. An awkwardness that derives from a film defined by supressed emotion. This is a work about an adult daughter taking their ageing mother, for her birthday, to a hotel full of memories in order to work on a screenplay that is about their relationship. The hotel is presented like a Turn of the Screw-esque gothic setiting, it has the essence of a stately British chiller. One is reminded, as one often is, of David Foster Wallace’s famous quotation that every ghost story is a love story. Here, a story of familial love is used to give the impression of a ghost story. It doesn’t step beyond metaphor or suggestion but the hauntings in the film are its key feature: memories, emotions, things we repress, history and maybe even ourselves. These aspects echo around characters and cling to the film’s geography. The beautiful cinematography holds on the location: an English hotel of the country house variety (top drawer stately home stuff). There is always the sense of so much under the surface, making for satisfying and cerebral viewing.

An eventual reveal, though, is certainly rather obvious. It builds to what you think it is and, really, doesn’t do as much with its eventual identity as it could. The final shot of The Souvenir: Part II felt film defining: the perfect coda and a choice that recontextualised the wider work; the cleverest and most intellectually satisfying way to explore what the film was about. The Eternal Daughter feels very known. You wait for another meta-textual swing but the film’s persistent sense of restraint overrides. It is all narratively satisfying and emotionally cogent, it just feels rather known. Hogg is perhaps a victim of her own previous brilliance, setting an expectation of taking the appealing and making it even more interesting. Here, the expected is handsomely delivered.

Really, distance seems to be the issue here (though issue is too strong a word). The wounds this film explores feel fresh. Her previous two works delved deeply and were able to glean fascinating insights. They felt challenging and raw. Here, the emotional landscape feels deep but is also uninterrogated. There is a fragility to everything, it is a delicate work that gains real beauty through being so. But, there is also a sense of distance. Our narrative focus seems to close to a lived reality; things are not picked apart or unfurled. At one point, it really digs in. Raw emotion comes to the surface and seems to set a path for the rest of the film but, then, it backs away (it retreats into restraint). It is an interesting approach, really, another key decision. It is not as satisfying for a viewer but it is an approach that provokes thought: does Hogg owe us her grief and is this film for us? The answers may be obvious and grappling with them is part of the experience. Though, these deeper elements could be more integral to the text. It may evoke more than it is, existing as a work made profound by being slight, but the restraint also works against it. To exist in interpretation is a fascinating way to be; however, there is always the feel that it could gain this appeal and still feel more substantive, and that being so would enrich it further.


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