‘The Eternal Daughter’ Review: Tilda Swinton Shines Twice Over

Joanna Hogg gives fans of "The Souvenir" a bonus gift with this slender but haunted tale of a woman making a movie about her mother.
The Eternal Daughter
"The Eternal Daughter"
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Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 releases the film in theaters on Friday, December 2.

At a critical moment towards the end of Joanna Hogg’s magnificent “The Souvenir Part II” — the second and supposedly final portion of her self-portrait of an artist — the director’s young avatar is overcome by her frustrations with the student film she’s trying to make (itself an autobiographical story called “The Souvenir”). “I don’t want to see life as it was,” she stresses, “I want to see life as I imagine it to be.” As played by Honor Swinton Byrne, the hurting but headstrong Julie Hart eventually finds a way to do just that, a breakthrough that allows Hogg’s self-reflexive memoir of a movie to follow suit.

Satisfied that she had committed the ecstatic truth of her own story to celluloid in a way that seemed more honest to her than her memories, Hogg apparently decided to see if she could work the same magic on someone else: Her mother (a version of whom had been portrayed by Honor Swinton Byrne’s mother, Tilda Swinton, in “The Souvenir” and its sequel). More specifically, Hogg wanted to make a movie that would preserve her memories of her mother — if not quite her mother’s memories — by laundering them through her own imagination. As tends to be the case when someone tries to find their way out of a house of mirrors, that seems to have proven easier said than done.

An elegantly slender phantom of a film that channels a spooky hotel’s worth of gothic horror tropes into the heartrending story of a woman trying to see her own ghost, “The Eternal Daughter” finds Hogg returning to the haunted corridors of her personal experience — and, unexpectedly, to the fictional version of herself that she invented to walk through them. Yes, Julie Hart is back, with Tilda Swinton taking over the role that her daughter originated in “The Souvenir” (that was set in the ’80s, this in the present day).

But that alone wouldn’t be enough of a meta-casting mind-fuck for this deceptively straightforward movie, in which Hogg interrogates her right and ability to make a movie about her mother by making a movie in which her on-screen avatar interrogates her right and ability to make a movie about her mother. So not only does Swinton play the middle-aged version of Julie, she also reprises her role as Julie’s now-widowed mother, Rosalind, the actress embodying both women as they retreat for a stay at the fictional Moel Famau hotel in Flintshire, Wales.

It’s a worthy conceit for a film that may not quite feel like “The Souvenir Part III” — it’s less a fully fleshed out sequel than a spectral reverse shot — but offers a beautiful coda to Hogg’s masterful couplet all the same (while “The Eternal Daughter” stands on its own, it would likely feel much slighter without some prior familiarity with the story that it so beautifully enriches). Where Hogg’s last two movies saw the filmmaker tracing a version of herself from memory, this one sees her tracing a memory from a version of herself.

Rosalind used to stay at the creaky 300-year-old country house as a child during the war, and she’s returned to it under the auspices of meeting up with a distant cousin. But the truth of the matter is that Julie has an ulterior motive: She plans on asking (telling?) her mother to be the subject of her next film, and possibly gleaning some insight about her character in the process. But the conversation proves hard to broach for several reasons, the first and most immediate of which being that Moel Famau is just the creepiest place this side of a Jack Clayton movie about possessed children.

As if the thick sea of fog weren’t bad enough — the mist obscuring many of the subtle grace notes and devilish little details that allow “The Eternal Daughter” to resonate long after this deceptively small ghost story has come to an end — Julie and Rosalind appear to be the only guests in the sprawling estate. The disinterested young night clerk (Carly Sophia-Davie, all but twirling a piece of gum around her finger) swears that all of the other rooms are booked, but Hogg’s lead characters dine by themselves every night. And whenever the clerk drives off with her unseen boyfriend at the end of each shift, EDM music pounding through the subwoofers of his car, it seems like Julie and Rosalind have been left there all alone. Well, Julie, Rosalind, and Rosalind’s faithful spaniel, Louis (Swinton’s actual dog).

It goes without saying that Moel Famau is the kind of place where things go bump in the night, but in a film that owes far more to Joanna Hogg’s oeuvre than it does any other genre, it stands to reason that they bump rather gently — often strong enough to dislodge an assumption that Julie might have about her mother, but never strong enough to jolt you out of your seat or even try. The fact is that most of “The Eternal Daughter” is spent watching Julie prepare Rosalind’s medicine, sit across from her mother during airless dinner, and shuffle around the hotel’s empty hallways in search of mysterious sounds. She runs into a tiny handful of other characters from time to time, their encounters unfolding like friendly, wistful versions of the conversations that Jack Nicholson has with the bartender in “The Shining” (a connection underscored by Hogg’s use of the same Bela Bartok piece that Kubrick borrowed for his soundtrack, though the two films use different parts of it).

And yet, despite its flagrant lack of incident, “The Eternal Daughter” pulls you in because of how lucidly Julie’s wanderings reflect her mounting creative and personal crises (and, by extension, Hogg’s own). In their almost subliminal way, each of the interactions Julie has with Rosalind unmoors her a little further. Some return her to a state of permanent adolescence — the way that only being around a parent can — while others force her to reckon with how little she knows about her mother, or how little the women of her mother’s generation may even want to be known. When Rosalind shudders that “The rooms hold stories,” it suddenly feels as if Julie is trespassing in them, and the energy percolating inside Ed Rutherford’s lush 16mm frames only adds to that sense of disruption.

More than just an efficient bit of stunt-casting for a movie shot at the height of COVID, Swinton’s uncanny dual performances are key to the movie’s hushed meditation on how women might see themselves in their mothers (this, despite the fact that Swinton so fully inhabits both roles that you almost instantly forget they share a single actress between them). If Julie sometimes feels like her mother’s doppelgänger, then why does Rosalind also seem so distant? Julie becomes quietly fixated on the discrepancies between them, the filmmaker growing frustrated that her efforts to capture her mother’s memory on camera only lead to her getting lost in her own reflection or being confounded by tricks of the light.

Even worse are the rare moments when Julie does manage to see things from her mom’s perspective — or at least convince herself that she can — as she can’t shake the feeling that Rosalind is disappointed by her decision not to become a mother herself. Does Rosalind see that as a form of rejection, and if so, would it be something that Julie (or Hogg) might want to include in a movie that will inevitably come to supplant her actual memories of her mother? And, if it’s true that Julie thinks of her films as her children, what sort of phantasmagorical crossing of the streams might happen if she made one about the woman who gave birth to her?

These questions (in addition to several others) tangle around each other in such delicate fashion over the course of “The Eternal Daughter” that it’s hard to prepare yourself for the moment when Hogg suddenly yanks the movie tight on both sides and knots it all together in a single stroke. The literal meaning of that last-minute twist — obligatory for any film that borrows so much from “The Turn of the Screw” and its ilk — couldn’t be any clearer, but its implications resonate with the same layered complexity of the final shot from “The Souvenir Part II,” and considerably more unease. If Julie’s films really are her children, perhaps dedicating this one to Rosalind would be enough to make her feel like a grandmother at last.

Grade B+

“The Eternal Daughter” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.

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