“For Hogg to take the ‘haunted mansion’ trope and turn it on its head in her own distinctive style is a true treasure that will likely only please her fans, but is undeniably also a film that is distinctively hers.”
Edgar Allan Poe is one of history’s greatest, and certainly its most recognizable gothic horror writer. Many of Poe’s stories have had a cinematic treatment or two, with varying levels of success. Singular British director Joanna Hogg’s latest, the two-hander-by-a-single-actress The Eternal Daughter, is not a Poe adaptation, but it could have been. Continuing to examine mother-daughter relationships after doing so in both parts of The Souvenir, and fairly explicitly as a continuation of those two films, Hogg uses a ghost-story framework (including all the tropes that come with it) to make a film primarily about memory and grief, in which everything we see is thrown into doubt by a late twist in the narrative. Its meta connections to her most recent films, the two that thrust her to the forefront of British arthouse cinema, are to be expected of Hogg. But the sly inclusion of references to some of cinema’s classics (at least one giving a clear hint to the story’s denouement) shows Hogg’s playfulness, while on the surface The Eternal Daughter is quite a stiff and VERY British film.
Filmmaker Julie (Tilda Swinton) and her mother (also Tilda Swinton) arrive late at night at an imposing old manor, converted into a hotel, their cab winding its way through foreboding fog and dark, ominous woods. The hotel’s formal garden is bathed in a spooky light, and it’s a room with a view over that garden that Julie has booked for them. The rather unpleasant receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) informs her that the request has not come through, although there seems no reason not to give the two women the room: the hotel appears devoid of any other guests.
The reasons for their stay at the manor are twofold: Julie wants to work on a script about her mother, but she also hopes that bringing her mom to the place she lived during the war will evoke memories that help Julie overcome her writer’s block. While her mother seems perfectly at ease in this spooky place, enjoying solid sleep thanks to her pharmaceutical ‘little helpers’, Julie lies awake most of the night, unnerved by the sounds in and around the hotel. Creaky doors, howling wind, a window that keeps banging open and shut. She makes nightly excursions through the manor’s dimly lit and creepy hallways, searching for that elusive window or for Louis, her mother’s most charming British Spaniel, prone to escape through open doors. These nightly excursions have a negative effect on her inspiration, and the fact that bringing her mother to a place that she thought would elicit happy memories does in fact dislodge trauma in the older woman doesn’t help either. But Mom’s birthday is coming up, so maybe that will pry loose the stone that gets Julie’s work rolling.
Poe’s stories are always more about the psychology of his characters than about the scares, mood being influenced by perception of their surroundings rather than rational observation, more often than not resulting in paranoia. Hogg doesn’t torture her Julie as much as Poe does his characters, but she has a field day with the genre trappings of the ghost story. Apparitions, dark woods, a sinister manor, they’re all there to toy with Julie psychologically, making her start to see things that aren’t there. When Hogg eventually pulls the rug from under the audience, the veiled revelation about the true reason behind the hotel stay forces the viewer to re-evaluate everything seen so far, depending on one’s interpretation turning the whole thing into yet another meta exercise akin to The Souvenir Part II. For many this might prove too technical and cold, but devoted Hogg fans will delight in this small, spooky story that takes the premise of a short story and reframes it to feature length. Shot in secret during COVID times, the small ensemble (Joseph Mydell and August Joshi round out the cast) only enhance the film’s creepy mood: there’s only so much space a small cast can occupy in a large manor, and the emptiness is distressing.
The Eternal Daughter is also a profoundly British film. The stiff politeness of the English bourgeoisie is in good hands with Swinton, whose affected performance as both mother and daughter effortlessly glides through all the profuse apologies that the two women make towards each other, trying to prevent inconvenience and discomfort at all cost. Swinton, hailing from a similar milieu, hits these tones perfectly in a wistful and touching, though slightly distancing performance. It combines with the superb work by Hogg’s collaborators behind the camera, notably Ed Rutherford’s cinematography providing an opportunity to play with light and shadows to evoke a ‘haunted house’ mood, and the magnificent sound design by Jovan Ajder. His work truly is the star of the show here, the soundscape turning the manor almost into a character of its own and playing a major part in why The Eternal Daughter works so well.
With this film Hogg doesn’t quite reach the level of the Souvenir duo, certainly on an intellectual level, but once again underlines her singularity as a director. As one of the (sadly) few real auteur films on the Mostra this year, The Eternal Daughter stands out as the work of an artist with true vision and a style of her own, yet one who is also willing to play with the conventions of genres that film snobs would perhaps deem beneath her. Luca Guadagnino did a similar thing with his Bones and All, successfully building an unconventional love story around a slasher framework, but his style in general is more mainstream than Hogg’s. For her to take the ‘haunted mansion’ trope and turn it on its head in her own distinctive style is a true treasure that will likely only please her fans, but is undeniably also a film that is distinctively hers. As such, and in light of the abundance of derivative stuff playing at the festival, The Eternal Daughter is a work that should be cherished. Edgar Allan Poe would be pleased.