The Eternal Daughter
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” This opening line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind while watching Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter. The film starts on a cab making its way through a forested road entrenched in fog so thick it swallows all but the headlights, and finally arrives at a hotel mansion so basked in shadow it might as well be Hill House itself. Gothic overtones aside, the quote’s resonance persists as Hogg’s filmography over the last decade has pulled further and further from films of absolute reality and deeper and deeper into dreams. It used to be a surprising bit of trivia that the director most known for her Rohmeresque, formally precise films of upper-crust alienation (Unrelated, Archipelago) had once debuted a student film (Caprice) infused with the technicolor wonder of The Red Shoes whilst introducing Tilda Swinton to the world. Yet, 2013’s Exhibition marked a quiet shift from Hogg’s coolly detached realism, its ending dipping into the unreal as invigorating as it was surprising. Exhibition was followed by The Souvenir, which brought back not just Swinton, but a dreamier filmmaking mode adrip with nostalgia, and finally, The Souvenir: Part II, which homaged Caprice directly and pulled the rug from reality altogether in its finale. Now with The Eternal Daughter, Hogg continues where she left off, pressing forward into a new liminal space. But if her last film betrayed a messy uncertainty, each step into the darkness here and now finds her as confident and precise as ever, again in full command of the painful familial bedrock that informs her oeuvre.
Returning to the cab of the intro, we find two passengers — an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter — and Tilda Swinton playing both roles. It’s remarkable how easy it is to take for granted that Swinton would attempt something as bold as what Hogg has cooked up here, almost as if we’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing her carry challenging roles with grace that it’s become a matter of fact. That said, Hogg’s confidence in anchoring the film in this one-woman show isn’t particularly outlandish either, given Swinton’s complete symbiosis (I wouldn’t dare call it anything less) with Apichatpong’s Weerasethakul’s Memoria just last year. Much like Memoria, and Swinton’s other brushes with the eternal (Orlando, Only Lovers Left Alive), the past once again haunts the present, and does so on multiple levels: literal, metaphorical, and metatextual. The literal haunting manifests immediately on the pair’s arrival, as the spooky atmosphere of the forest and road is just as pronounced inside the hotel, which appears to be barely staffed and uninhabited, apart from a bemused clerk manning the front desk. Hallways are bathed in green hues, errant sounds echo their way up creaky staircases, and — were it not for the laptop at reception and mention of WiFi — the building, entombed in dread, might just as easily seem trapped eighty years back in time.
These unsettled atmospherics are paralleled by a metaphorical haunting: a daughter excavates the depths of her mother’s memories tied to this house — having spent her childhood here before it was a hotel — and inadvertently surfaces traumas of the past that push the two towards a breaking point. The final touch is metatextual, as, upon arrival, the daughter announces herself as none other than The Souvenir’s Julie Hart. What might have been a glib easter egg for another director is serious business for Hogg, as the relationship between Julie and her mother Rosalind served as a fulcrum in the original film. The additional symmetry of having real-life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne homage her real-life mother’s Caprice performance in Part II is inverted here; now, we have Tilda Swinton assuming the role made famous by her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, in what could very well be an epilogue to The Souvenir series, allowing its mother-daughter relationship to take its final stage. It makes sense, however, that despite this connective tissue, Hogg resists the temptation to append The Souvenir’s name to this film. Those who’ve invested and steeped themselves in her last two works can tug at the throughlines expanding past the confined story, but it’s so tightly wound and well-built that the unfamiliar will still find a satisfying and contained narrative of filial guilt, longing, and grief.
As expected, Swinton excels at building out two distinct characters for Julie and Rosalind, allowing their quiet confrontations to feel tense and robust in a way that’s hard to imagine until you see it in action. Hogg sidesteps any gimmickry by keeping just one character on screen at a time, and still, all of it works on the pure tensile strength of Swinton’s approach. At the heart of the drama, amplified by the haunted house trappings, are Julie’s anxious attempts to use this holiday to tighten their mother-daughter bond, all the while fostering a creative breakthrough for her upcoming film. However, Rosalind’s declining health triggers a separate thematic undercurrent that dominates the latter half, and Julie’s fear of losing her mother, amplified by haunted nightly apparitions, only sharpens her insecurity expressed as smothering care. Those familiar with The Souvenir will find Julie’s desperate attempts to cling to the ephemeral against all odds achingly familiar, but there is a yet deeper, more fundamental universality at play: a daughter bracing against the tides of time, to hold onto the fragments of her mother for as long as possible.
If The Souvenir: Part II was a digression on art and the futility of expression, The Eternal Daughter, despite its dreamscape setting, feels more of a piece with the haunting loss and absence that permeates Hogg’s earlier filmography. What’s fascinating is how shifting to the fantastical mode does nothing to undercut the severity of her emotional wirework. “You can’t regret it because you didn’t have any say in it,” Rosalind says to Julie in a nervy dialogue exemplary of the painful realism grounding the film. Here the mother attempts to assuage her daughter’s guilt for bringing up painful memories, and yet denies her agency as she does so. Julie’s apologies and fretting are turned frivolous because her ability to affect her mother at all — to make her happy or sad, to protect her, to console her, to ease her pain — is limited to begin with. Julie attempts to reverse their dynamic: “I want to do what you want,” she pleads, but this thrust is antithetical to the core of their relationship, a futility reigning over each and every interaction as Rosalind denies Julie at every turn. More so than The Souvenir, the underpinning implications and understated ferocity of these exchanges channel the climactic breakdown at the end of Unrelated, or the dinner table tantrum in Archipelago.
It won’t take long for keen-eyed viewers to clue in on where the interplay of hauntings in The Eternal Daughter is headed, yet Hogg steers the ship so confidently that it doesn’t matter if you spot the iceberg coming. Her small-scale story is a conduit for grappling with emotions far more complex than the superficial adherence to the genre exercise might suggest. For someone who fell in love with the restraint of Hogg’s early filmmaking, I am inclined to push back against this mode as excessive and unnecessary, and yet by the film’s culmination, its utility and importance become clear. In fact, this is not dissimilar from the grand gesture that wraps up Memoria. Like Apichatpong, Hogg invokes the supernatural to communicate the depths and intensity of emotion at play, heightening the significance of simple exchanges deemed small or banal to the scale of myth. With that in mind, one thinks of the tragedy of the “eternal daughter” of the title, which is limited not just to the grief over the impending loss of a mother, but also the stasis of eternity wherein motherhood itself lies forever out of reach. Hogg employs the Gothic tradition to express this, and by pushing us past the limits of reality, more vividly than ever paints the loss and alienation undergirding her cinema; “…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Writer: Igor Fishman
What is the opposite of a Golden Age? That term, usually attributed to a civilization’s growth and stability in market and cultural forces, may not be felt by the average citizen, though they may still take pride in their elite’s achievements. But both bourgeois citizen and elite fear its opposite: periods of instability and violence where power is more fluid and often concentrated in whoever holds the guns. This is the Golden Age de-alchemized, its magic lost, devalued back into lead.
Italy’s Years of Lead (Anni di piombo) represents such a time. This period is thought to be a violent reaction to a stagnant postwar country caught between NATO and the USSR — Communists would not cede their growing workers’ rights to a capitalist NATO, and the neo-fascists would not cede their nation and the dead ideals of fascism without a fight. As a result, these years (roughly 1968-88) were marked by assassinations, bombings, riots, fires, attempted coups, kidnappings, and growing threats of all of the above. That the CIA’s Operation Gladio (”stay-behind” troops and weapons set up by the Americans during the 1950s to combat Soviet influence) possibly contributed to spreading or maintaining this violence muddies the official story. So now, the myth of the Years of Lead becomes another familiar story: one of an ill-managed centrist state, radical oppositional forces who may or may not have had State Department goals mixed in with their ideals, violence without benefit, and a peace where everyone loses. It’s almost designed to make you ask, “Oh well, what can you do?”
Marco Bellocchio’s new miniseries Exterior Night tackles the one act from the Years of Lead that grabbed the most headlines and affected the trajectory of Italy’s leftist politics forever. Bellocchio had already depicted the capture and eventual murder of Christian Democracy president Aldo Moro by the far-left Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in a 1995 TV documentary (Sogni infranti) and a 2003 feature (Good Morning, Night). But those two works tackled the subject obliquely, as the former interviewed ex-BR members and the latter presented the events through the eyes of Moro’s daughter. While willing to take speculative artistic liberties, this five-and-a-half-hour miniseries tackles the event straight-on. It’s clear that this historical moment has haunted Bellocchio, known to have made Marxist movies at the beginning of his career (and even voicing the President in his buddy Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò), and his mostly literal retelling focuses on the trauma of failure — everyone’s failure.
Exterior Night’s opening episode introduces the audience to each of the major players in Moro’s life and eventual kidnapping. Strictly political conversations do not dominate this work, but enough information is given such that one can understand the stakes: Moro, president of the majority Christian Democracy party, is attempting to form a new coalition with the Italian Communist Party. This made political sense for building long-term party support, but this Historic Compromise (its official name) was loved by neither the United States nor the Communists, nor members of Moro’s own party. In fact, much of the first episode shows Moro (Fabrizio Gifuni) exercising divided loyalties, telling his friend, Pope Paolo VI (Toni Servillo), that it will placate the Communists from having official power while simultaneously noting to PCI top brass that, just as Nixon told Mao, one must have a conservative cover to do the most radical acts. The episode ends with BR’s murder of Moro’s small motorcade, his kidnapping, and the paralysis of the government immediately after. Each subsequent episode then grants the audience a different perspective between these events and the eventual assassination, namely: Francesco Cossiga, Moro’s Minister of the Interior (and eventual Prime Minister and President of Italy), who fights his party’s inability to act to save his friend; the Pope, a personal friend of Moro who is often too ill to proffer the spiritual guidance Moro desires; two BR members whose allegiance to the group seems to waver at times; and finally, Moro’s family, all of whom struggle to finally love the man who seemed so distant until now. The final, shorter episode unites these stories again.
The result of this is not a political thriller (though abrupt Morricone-like strings accent shocking events), but a slow-motion funeral for left-leaning politics in Italy. It’s fitting, then, that a large portion of screen time is dedicated to characters walking and weeping from room to room, nearly always in medium-shot, nearly always in shallow focus. It’s character-focused, sure, but as each powerful character laments their inability to do anything to change the course of events, the series itself presents an inability to say anything beyond that. Interesting moments do occur, such as a BR member accusing her husband of no longer wanting revolution but narcissistically wanting to die a hero, just as he leaves a screening of The Wild Bunch. And each episode does break briefly from this sordid reality, such as Francesco Cossiga’s meditating over a bleeding map or Moro’s wife Eleonora (Margherita Buy) finding herself in an experimental theater’s reenactment of her husband’s imprisonment. Most characters, however, continue to sleepwalk through the halls of power, their emotions presented didactically, their ideas existing only as platitudes. It does give an accurate sense of political stagnation, as nothing new is present.
Writer: Zach Lewis
You Have to Come and See It
At this point, there have been so many movies about Covid, either directly or by inference, that it’s barely necessary to make a note of this context. Even if filmmakers have no desire to address the pandemic head-on, various safety protocols have subtly (and not-so-subtly) altered every aspect of production. But Jonás Trueba’s charming new film, You Have to Come and See It, might be one of the first notable examples of post-Covid narrative — that awkward (and still ongoing) process of navigating friendships and easing back into social spaces after months and months of isolation and cautious trepidation. It’s a brief film, only 64 minutes long, and Trueba favors privileged moments and elliptical elisions rather than a traditional, plot-heavy narrative. It’s a sketch of a film, in other words, a casual endeavor that nonetheless contains ample grace and beauty.
The film begins with four friends attending a musical performance in a cáfe. Trueba allows the entire piece of music, a jazzy little piano number, to play out in full, occupying almost 10 minutes of runtime, the filmmaker seemingly content to soak in the ambiance and the pleasure of the performance. After the musician finishes, the friends begin to chitchat. It quickly becomes clear that Elena (Itsaso Arana) and Daniel (Vito Sanz), who live in the city, have not seen Susana (Irene Escolar) and Guillermo (Francesco Carril) for some time. Susana and Guillermo live in the suburbs, and while they try to impress upon their friends that it’s really not too far away and that they should come and visit, it’s obvious that the city-dwellers have no real desire to make the journey to the burbs. But Susana and Guillermo politely insist, and a sudden title card that states “6 months later” finds Elena and Daniel on a train, en route to visit after all. Guillermo picks them up from the station and drives them back to his house, detailing the local spots that he and Susana frequent while bemoaning how difficult it is to make friends outside of the city. The remainder of the film simply observes the foursome as they reconnect, sharing a meal and some drinks while talking about their lives. Trueba is a fan of Éric Rohmer, particularly the New Wave icon’s 1986 film The Green Ray, and indeed there’s more than a little of Rohmer’s talkiness in Trueba’s project. Most interesting is Trueba’s approach towards blocking his subjects, moving these characters through the confines of a home that feels somehow both comfy and confining. Pointedly, the audience is never given a clear sense of the building’s layout, so that each character takes turns being isolated in the frame from their companions. It’s a small thing, certainly, but it speaks to an underlying tension of sorts, a sense that no one is particularly comfortable here. Eventually, the talk turns from niceties to more serious discussions about the difficulties of conceiving a child and the (all too relatable) phenomenon of middle-aged people losing touch with old friends (“you have to come and see it” eventually becomes less an invitation than a plea). Eventually the film changes gears one last time for a kind of meta-, self-reflexive coda, which, surprisingly, links the proceedings to Abbas Kiarostami’s seminal Taste of Cherry. It’s a playful, even exuberant denouement, with the film’s precise formalism opening up to something more free-form, even experimental. Trueba has a keen sense of movement and a careful eye for performance; You Have to Come and See It provides ample evidence of his talents. It’s a small gem, unassuming yet quietly profound.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The Unstable Object II
Michael Snow’s Wavelength still stands as the prototypical “experimental film” — perhaps the one experimental work that film studies professors will continue selecting as a stand-in for the miscellany under that title. That may be a bit of an odd choice, considering that the art world-friendly titles usually came in the Canyon Cinema variety: diaristic, personal, hippie-dippie works, shot on Super 8mm, and ultimately relying on a free-associating logic. Wavelength is much colder than those pick-up-a-camera-and-film-whatever hippie diaries, yet it remains more approachable thanks to its simplicity. Snow, coming from an art world that focused on form, made his film about the zoom function of a camera. Like all art, it can also be “about” many other things, but Wavelength’s zoom allowed the (primarily East Coast) film artists to have their cinema-qua-cinema moment, much as Oscar Wilde prompted “l’art pour l’art” decades earlier. Filmmakers such as Snow, Ernie Gehr, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Peter Gidal reduced their films to single formal traits (say, Conrad’s The Flicker, composed of just white and black frames, or Gehr’s Serene Velocity that rapidly changes focal lengths on a shot of a hallway), meaning they’re cheap, simple, yet able to spark discussion and debate. P. Adams Sitney labeled these films as “structural,” and their impact can be seen everywhere from the most punishing long takes in arthouse fare to the most attention-grabbing psychedelic editing in mainstream television.
Of course, the tradition of structural film fits most comfortably in film festivals’ experimental sidebars and galleries’ video art exhibitions. And, though many of these films are profound thanks to their simplicity, the “structural” label and weight of its history can be unduly lent to works that are merely simple. The small production budgets and the wanton corruption in the art world do not help their case.
This is all to say that Daniel Eisenberg’s The Unstable Object II has this history working both for and against it. His original 2011 work juxtaposed three modes of production: BMWs made nearly entirely by machines, wall clocks made in assembly line fashion, and cymbals made dangerously by hand. In dictionary-definition structural mode, Eisenberg removed all possible frills, leaving only the structure (both of the film and the objects being made) to be analyzed. Shot one shows step one in creating the object, shot two shows step two, and on and on until the product appears, much like flipping through a LEGO instructions booklet. The pleasure one receives from such a literal film as this varies depending on whether or not an intellectual compare/contrast exercise sounds like fun. The sequel, clocking in at three-and-a-half hours and sporting a dreaded “II” (implying that audiences have homework before attending), promises three times the fun.
The Unstable Object II similarly follows three different modes of production: a German workshop that carefully constructs prosthetic limbs and digits (Ottobock), a French artisanal glove-making shop (Maison Fabre), and a Turkish factory that mass-produces the sort of distressed jeans that keep Eurotrash clubs alive and pumping (Realkom). The specific locales add another layer of interest: see the blonde women slowly sculpting a prosthetic fingernail here, see the women in hijabs quickly switching out denim samples there. But all potential humanity (outside the forcefully poetic “their eyes bare their souls” variety) has been excised in favor of Eisenberg’s structural mission. This can be fine — it certainly gives an easy priority to any Marxist reading about alienation. Yet Kevin Jerome Everson’s eight-hour Park Lanes, an equally daunting film about a full workday in a Virginia factory, manages to capture conversations, work politics, breaks, and laughter, so you can see exactly what gets sucked out during the labor. Eisenberg works by rules first, people second, giving us the most solemn three episodes of How It’s Made.
Though no commentary accompanies the images of fingers forged or jeans stitched, Eisenberg offers plenty of thoughts on his website. He notes that the film’s runtime may make it “difficult for some viewers” but that this form of “durational observation” is necessary such that it can “expand what might be understood from the image of labor.” Again, this is true, just as it was true when André Bazin praised the long takes of Orson Welles. But Welles’s shots worked for the grandiosity of his characters just as Michael Snow’s long zoom worked for the bizarre narrative everyone forgets to mention in Wavelength. The Unstable Object II’s structure works to lend it artistic credentials, and, like many twentieth-century artworks, the conversations it inspires will likely be more interesting than the film itself.
Writer: Zach Lewis
Lebanese filmmaker Ali Cherri has been a bit of a fixture on the festival circuit with his wry, melancholy short works addressing the state of the Arab world. His 2011 film Pipe Dreams was a miniature triptych about the hopes and failures of the Arab Spring, and his slightly longer film The Disquiet (2013) examined instability in Lebanese life, both on a cultural and a seismic level, literalizing the concept of a society breaking along various fault lines. With all this in mind, anticipation was high for The Dam, Cherri’s feature debut, which played in this year’s Quinzaine.
Sadly, The Dam is a disappointment. In creating a fiction/documentary hybrid set in Sudan, Cherri has produced a film that embodies a great many world cinema clichés without bringing a great deal to the table that’s new or provocative. The Dam starts out quite well, with Cherri focusing on the labor process as a kind of counterpoint to broader political shifts. As news reports mark the unfolding of the 2019 Sudanese coup d’etat, Maher (Maher El Khair) and his colleagues work at a production plant along the Nile, slopping mud into metal molds to generate hundreds of identical adobe bricks. Even though there’s a fairly obvious metaphor at work here – the land being subdivided into a commodity, one that promises to form the foundation of something else – The Dam’s patient observation refrains from overstating it. This part of Cherri’s film scans like a nominally fictionalized version of Harun Farocki’s brickmaking documentary, In Comparison (2009).
Eventually, we see Maher riding off alone into the desert. In a series of evocative shots, Cherri reveals that Maher is working on a very different mud structure, a giant figure with tree-branch arms and a primitive-looking face. Again, The Dam seems at this point to be introducing a compelling idea, and a fairly original one. Maher works all day shaping mud into uniform blocks that are not his property; in his off-hours, he is an artist, turning the medium of his oppression toward his own free expression. Alas, that’s not where The Dam goes.
Instead, Cherri takes a sharp turn into the supernatural, with Maher’s colossal human form coming to life: a Golem of sorts that seems related to the political violence and unrest that eventually moves into the foreground. This is a fashionable strategy for art films in the post-Apichatpong era, the mythic and the spiritual bubbling up into an otherwise ordinary waking life. But it’s never really a good idea to impersonate an artist as singularly visionary as Apichatpong, because no one else can do what he does. What The Dam does accomplish is cheapening its political content, implying that revolution in Sudan is just an outbreak of long-simmering mystic energies. I don’t think that Cherri has meant to reduce African geopolitics to the elemental or the atavistic, but this is the end result of The Dam, a film that promises material analysis and lapses into mystification.
Writer: Michael Sicinski