The Eternal Daughter: a smart, spooky mother-daughter double act

Starring Tilda Swinton in a dual role that transcends gimmickry and achieves powerful resonance, this spectral Gothic tale is a blackly funny exploration of identity.

14 September 2022

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter (2022)
Sight and Sound

Joanna Hogg is interested in how we are shaped by the rooms we occupy. The starkest example is Exhibition (2014), set in the unique home that architect James Melvin designed with so many nooks and crannies that a strained couple are able to live together apart. Her most recent films – The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II – reveal this preoccupation through the fastidious recreation of the Kensington flat where Hogg spent her early adulthood, going so far as to bring in old furniture to decorate the bedroom of her fictional alter ego, Julie. The ethos seems to be: if she builds it, the film will come.

The setting this time around is a creepy hotel in the Welsh countryside. The opening shows a path flanked by trees, shrouded in a snowy pea-souper, until the yellow beams of a black cab illuminate the scene. In the passenger seats are not one but two Tilda Swintons. One has orange hair and is middle-aged; the other has lighter hair and is elderly. They are driven to a grand Gothic hotel, all stone lions and geometric hedges, where the wind whistles and branches rattle at the windows. Is Joanna Hogg making a ghost story?

Long before showing her hand, she introduces us to the building and its occupants using customary long and stilted takes. At the front desk is a young Welsh lady (Carly-Sophia Davies) who is magnificently uninterested in the art of customer service; a passive-aggressive conversation between her and Tilda the younger runs uncomfortably long. The younger Tilda is intent on acquiring a particular room on the first floor for her and her mother. Clues regarding the significance of this hotel are dropped sparingly into the narrative, ratcheting up a sense of mystery; Hogg withholds basic information about her characters, forcing us to focus on the hotel itself as the younger Tilda roams its corridors at night, fascinated and very alone, with each sound magnified. The Mary Celeste vibes are palpable – until Tilda discovers a kindly confidant in the form of the bereaved nightwatchman (Joseph Mydell).

Sharp observational riffs on the ridiculous codes of polite society are paired with genre flourishes. A round make-up mirror contains the receptionist’s face as she does her make-up – then it tilts to the side and we see Tilda watching from the top of the stairs. It’s a blackly comic reveal that draws attention to the tension between the two women through horror movie grammar.

It is casually revealed that middle-aged Tilda is Julie, while elderly Tilda is Ros, marking an explicit link to the Souvenir films, where the mother and daughter have the same names. Ros lived a chunk of her life in this building and Julie is eager to record the memories sparked by returning together. Tilda acting opposite Tilda is bewitching, to the point that this potentially jarring casting stops feeling like a gimmick almost immediately. Her two characters end up as distinct people, and the fact that they have the same face proves a clever way to convey their closeness.

Perhaps the most affecting scene takes place when a ravenous Julie, enthusiastically browsing the hotel’s limited menu, is stopped in her tracks by Ros saying she won’t eat. “I’m not hungry if you don’t have hunger,” Julie tells her mother, echoing the scene in The Souvenir Part II where Julie asks how her mum felt on taking a tragic phone call and Ros responds, “I felt through you.” Hogg closes a loop here, presenting the mother-daughter relationship as one of identity-effacing empathy. Another film in competition at the Venice Film Festival, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, ends with a speech about how mother-daughter cells merge in the womb. Diop and Hogg form a consensus across their two films: this bond involves transference.

There are wheels within wheels in The Eternal Daughter, which winds down with Julie on her laptop typing up a description of the opening scene we witnessed 90 minutes earlier. As in the Souvenir films, Hogg has knitted into her structure questions about what making art about intimate relationships does to the way we embody them. This is a film about a mother and a daughter and memory and space; it is Hogg using the voluptuous form of a ghost story to, once again, explore the issues that afflict her restless artistic soul; it is Hogg having fun with expanding a distinct strain of playful humour, making a nod to one of the most famous mysteries in the cinema canon as she names a room after a dying man’s last word, ‘Rosebud’.

► The Eternal Daughter is one of the Special Presentations at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 6 and 7 October.

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