The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter. Some thoughts concerning a film by Maggie Gyllenhaal, not a book by Elena Ferrante.

I think it’s as astonishing first film, Gyllenhaal also wrote the screenplay. What struck me most powerfully is the insistent, close-up work of the camera in the faces of the women. The camera is the way the women feel the press of the outside world, always looking, questioning, suffocating, demanding to be acknowledged. Get the fuck out of my face, the women feel and almost never say, except Leda, played by Olivia Coleman in the present and by Jessie Buckley several decades younger when her two daughters are small. Leda does say it to her children, who, in her memory, never allowed her a moment of separation. When she is separate, the children break down in some way–wander off or hurt themselves–as a way to warn their mother and all mothers of the consequences of thinking about yourself.

The film is a great study of unwelcome motherhood and all the trappings that come with being a female parent, even if you are a woman who wants children. The pressure to conform, the clueless, utterly clueless proximity of the children’s father, in the case of Leda, another academic who thinks his work is work and his wife’s work is something she does in the moments her children are asleep. My favorite scene in the movie is the surprise visit of two hikers, a woman who has run off with a man who has left his children. Leda/Buckley falls in love with the visiting woman, who says this affair is the only thing that has happened in her life she can say has made her feel alive. We see Leda with these people—joyous and sexy—in a way that is not available to her with her children, in her domestic life, in her relationship with her husband, with the moribund male colleagues in her academic world.

Later, when she meets Nina on a Greek island, where both are vacationing, the young woman played by Dakota Johnson who also has a demanding daughter, will ask Leda/Coleman if the depression she feels will ever go away, and Coleman, with her clipped English accent and level gaze says, “No, it doesn’t go away.”

We haven’t seen a film like this, with this subject matter and its resolute commitment to it. That’s all the film is about, and this is also its weakness. It’s a great essay in a sense with a feminist point of view, turning one idea around over and over, but the scenes exist to illustrate the idea not to wander off into places their author/auteur could not have anticipated they would go. I’m not a happy audience for the didactic, no matter how fully I believe in the ideas. I’m not the audience for works about ideas.

The scenes with Buckley are great. I couldn’t get enough of her in that world. Coleman’s story involves stealing a doll for symbolic import–a kind of displaced anger at her young daughter for purposely destroying a doll Leda’s mother had given her? Don’t care. Hate symbols. Hate dolls. Ed Harris is good. I kept wanting him to throw a bucket of paint against a large canvas. In this film he’s kinda so what. Leda still attracts men? She’s meant to be 48! What the fuck. Harris is 71. There is a class thing, too, between Leda and the world of Nina’s people, a tightly knit, maybe Italian, very traditional extended family. Not sure of its purpose, except a lot of things are set up to distract Leda, even now, from separateness. A woman alone? She must be lonely. A woman in a family with children? She must be fulfilled.

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