The Family Plot
This article appeared in the December 1, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg, 2022)
The most fearsome hauntings tend to come from those whom we know intimately. Suspended in spectral purgatory, the spirits of our forebears invoke a shared yet inaccessible past that destabilizes our present. In The Eternal Daughter, Joanna Hogg teases out the inherently gothic nature of the intergenerational dynamic, contriving a ghost story out of that most primordial and murky of close unions—that of a mother and daughter. Two women who are also one.
Riffing on her previous two features, The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021), both auto-fictional portraits of the artist as a young woman, Hogg once again summons her heroine-cum-surrogate, Julie Hart. But gone is the fledgling filmmaker of the earlier works, played by an aloof and painfully vulnerable Honor Swinton Byrne. Instead, the Julie of the new film is closer in age and status to the Hogg of the present day, and here Tilda Swinton does the honors, performing a mature version of the character formerly essayed by her real-life daughter. In a beguiling move that transcends mere gimmick, Swinton also acts opposite herself as Julie’s mum, Rosalind, whom she played in the Souvenir films. The two characters emerge as unique beings—one an anxious busybody, the other a serene patrician—thanks in part to Swinton’s dramatic chops and assists from the makeup department. Hogg and cinematographer Ed Rutherford capture this dual performance using canny shot/reverse shots, with the two Tildas never occupying the same frame. This formal separation ironically deepens mother and daughter’s entanglement, making their rapport one of constant exchange, of looking and being looked at, of call and response.
With Julie married but childless and Rosalind’s husband long dead, the younger woman whisks her mother away on a brief vacation to a stately country hotel in Wales, once a manor where Rosalind spent some time as an adolescent. The opening scene, a winding drive through thick forest, evokes the portentous first minutes of The Shining, with Hogg even spiking the remainder of the film with macabre sonic lurches from Béla Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,” famously used by Stanley Kubrick in his secluded-resort chiller. A 300-year-old mansion, Soughton Hall, is transformed by the filmmaker into a veritable haunted house—all wooden creaks and long, cavernous hallways that glow alien-green and blue velvet, eerily lugubrious colors achieved by Rutherford’s use of grainy 16mm.
The Eternal Daughter, at least aesthetically, fits neatly into the tradition of British gothic horror, where the traumas of history are made manifest as fickle apparitions and imperious abodes embalmed in time. At night, curtains of fog descend upon the Marienbad-esque garden and slither throughout its maze of hedges and sculpted trees; a plot of jagged tombstones occupies the nearby woods. Inside the house, an incessant, unplaceable knocking keeps Julie awake at night (an echo of another Swinton-starring phantasmagoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2021 Memoria). Unable to sleep, she wanders the estate’s halls by night, engaging the preternaturally pleasant groundskeeper, Bill (Joseph Mydell), in friendly conversation after a mad search for her mother’s missing dog, Louis.
As it turns out, Bill may or may not be real, and Louis has been slumbering next to his master all along. At one point, like Deborah Kerr’s delirious governess in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)—a mostly faithful adaptation of Henry James’s ur–ghost story, The Turn of the Screw—Julie sees the face of some cadaverous specter gazing at her through a window. That the popular imagination tends to envision ghosts as evil speaks to the fear evoked by ambiguity, the unknown—as in the case of Kerr’s governess, a woman driven to madness by the unfounded but emotionally compelling belief in her wards’ demonic possession. Hogg does away with friend-or-foe horror, understanding that the hallucinatory conditions under which the quest for answers unfolds is more unsettling than the answers themselves.
Accordingly, Hogg’s take on the haunted-house tale is marked by a certain lightness—not a negation of the doom-and-gloom vibes so much as a complication of them. Julie is a “fusspot,” Rosalind tells the groundskeeper; indeed, Julie is all nerves and bottled energy as she helicopters over her mother and micromanages the conditions of their sojourn. A punkish receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), who doubles as the sole member of the waitstaff, makes things comically difficult for Julie: she insists that Julie can’t change rooms, though no one else seems to be staying at the hotel; she taps her foot impatiently as the women peruse the menu (featuring the same four dinner items every night!); and, at the end of every shift, she’s picked up in a red sports car by a mysterious figure who cranks the club music on the radio to a deafening volume. In typical Hoggsian fashion, a critique of the filmmaker’s own upper-middle-class milieu comes at a subtle pitch. Within the trappings of the ghost story, the receptionist’s inexplicable brusqueness might portend foul play, though opposite the overly decorous Julie, wound so tight she might burst, the desk clerk’s behavior comes off like deadpan absurdism. In any case, for posh, needy patrons like Julie, who crumble at the mere hint of disorder, lousy service may very well be the epitome of a nightmare, if not a full-fledged existential threat.
More profound terrors eventually arrive: one morning over breakfast, Julie is horrified to learn that what she thought might be a pleasant trip down memory lane has returned her mother to a place of great trauma. The country manor, once a vintage novelty in Julie’s mind, reveals its true form as a repository of memories, pulsing constantly, threateningly, with the traces of bygone days. That the house’s “lives” run through Julie, unbeknownst to her, is the source of the film’s haunting: her mother’s memories reside in Julie’s own bones, yet she experiences them as foreign, incomprehensible phenomena. For some of us, little is more disturbing than the revelation that our parents have a past, that parts of them exist beyond reach—no matter our genetic enmeshment. With Swinton playing both mother and daughter, this contradiction plays out within a single body. The mother exists in a gray space between the intuitively familiar and the utterly unknown.
Perhaps this impasse resolves itself with a young woman’s passage into motherhood, at which point the daughter becomes someone else’s sphinx. This isn’t an option for Julie; her films are her children, she says. Throughout The Eternal Daughter, she steals away to the attic to work on a screenplay for a new movie about her mother. When Rosalind recalls her early years over tea, Julie furtively records these memories, grist for the mill of her art practice. A sense of guilt overcomes Julie—the retreat may have been, unconsciously, a ploy to do research, to feed her own children—that conspires with her general unease over her mother’s health and happiness as well as the estranging, late-breaking facts about the house’s checkered past. As these feelings plunge Julie into an increasingly intense delirium, Rosalind seems to fade. The image of two hands touching—presumably Julie’s and that of a much older, frailer figure than the Rosalind with whom Julie arrived at the hotel—briefly flashes on screen.
In the film’s climactic scene, fittingly set on Rosalind’s birthday, Julie makes a series of grand gestures: dolled up in a red dress, she arranges her mother’s numerous gifts at the dining table—though Rosalind only opens one—and later brings the cake out herself while singing “Happy Birthday,” her desperation to please her unflappable mother reaching palpable levels of cringe. When the camera pulls back, we expect to see the two women in a single frame for the first time. Instead, the seat opposite Julie is empty. We now notice that Rosalind’s affectations and gestures—like the pause she takes before swallowing her daily pills with an emphatic gulp—are Julie’s, too. Following the birthday disaster, a weeping Julie lies in her hotel room, tucked into what was previously her mother’s bed; the other, which had been the daughter’s over the course of the trip, remains untouched. The reveal is telling. Julie, in trying to reach her mother, to “solve” her as it were, has found only herself.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, the Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.