In pushing viewers past the limits of reality, The Eternal Daughter more vividly than ever paints the loss and alienation undergirding Hogg’s cinema.
“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.”
Originally published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 4.