Venice 2022

The Eternal Daughter review – Tilda Swinton doubles up in an eerie, masterful meta-meditation

Joanna Hogg's self-reflective study of the known and the unknown perfectly blends her sensibility with that of a haunting ghost story

Joanna Hogg's sixth film is an eerie meta-meditation on mothers and daughters, shot under lockdown conditions and laced with knowing glances to her own double-masterpiece The Souvenir. It unfolds quietly, like fog moving over a frost-covered field, in a space somewhere between ghost story and personal memoir, before arriving, inevitably, upon what many will deem to be the most horrifying realisation of all: am I turning into my mother?

Julie (Tilda Swinton) arrives by taxi with her elderly mother, Rosalind (also Tilda Swinton), at a remote hotel in North Wales, once owned by a distant family member. The plan is for Julie to spend some quality time with her widowed parent, who she believes is concealing some inner sadness, but also to secretly start on a new project, which also happens to be about her mother. For unexplained reasons, they appear to be the only guests at the hotel, a dimly-lit and strangely sterile place that could only be located somewhere in the UK.

The movie, slow-paced and richly drawn in atmosphere, is as slight and empty as much as it is textured and detailed. The hotel setting finds a perfect balance between somewhere dull and unremarkable and one that's hiding secrets. But is this a place where the ghosts are already lurking, or a place where you bring your own ghosts when you check in?

Hogg, who leaned heavily into notions of meta in her last two films, The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, here makes her most meta-flex yet: fans of the filmmaker's back catalogue will notice that Julie shares the name of the protagonist of those achingly personal films, suggesting this piece be viewed as an appendage, or maybe even an epilogue – in other words, this, too, is a movie about Joanna Hogg.

The Eternal Daughter is a deceptively simple tale that quietly adds new layers, crafting a tricksy – but never confusing or frustrating – narrative that keeps upturning itself, gifting new insight to the characters and adding weight with every fold. This is essentially a film about the making of this film, a reflective exercise that grapples with the moral implications of exuding the personal on-screen for the sake of art and catharsis. Is it okay that Julie records conversations shared between her and her mother on her iPhone in secret during their stay, if ultimately it brings her closer to understanding this elusive person?

And is it right to say that Tilda Swinton shares brilliant chemistry with herself? She does. Playing two roles, the actor inhabits both mother and daughter with just the right degree of guarded politeness, giving both Julie and Rosalind their own unique, revealing traits and instantly flattening any accusations that this device is a gimmick. Their relationship is entirely lived-in, that sense of somehow knowing and never knowing a person lingering, uncomfortably, at the very heart of the film. In a clever move, Hogg resists the urge to frame both characters together until one crucial, heartbreaking scene, the film's only real moment of conflict.

But of course conflict is the wrong word. This is, after all, a very British film – and Hogg's tight, slippery screenplay never states the obvious but revels in the aftermath of things not said. The movie is rich with small moments that have come to define Hogg as a filmmaker of great observation; conversations with a rude receptionist and a kindly hotel manager that echo with truth (and Hogg's own voyeurism, a big theme here); or the minutiae of a very specific type of British awkwardness that she has explored in films like Unrelated and Archipelago.

As Julie navigates the darkened hotel corridors, compelled by a strange, ethereal sound, it's clear that the director has brilliantly matched her own personal style with something that still functions to the effect of a genuine ghost story. The sound design, heavy on wind and creaking windows and the kind of unknown noises you find in old hotels, is impeccable, while the hazy, visual look – paying homage to a host of British horror films from the 60s and 70s, with a dash of atmosphere borrowed from the pantheon of Italian horror – puts us in a weird liminal space that can be real or imagined.

Despite the conditions in which it was made, the film bears no hallmarks of something compromised – if anything, The Eternal Daughter is improved by its smaller scale, made scarier in the silences and the removal of other guests; a shining example of that age-old theory that great art often comes as a result of working under limitations. Hogg devotees will be certain to eat this one up, but the film's willingness to pair what is a very Hoggian idea with this new strangeness will likely win her some new fans, too. The Eternal Daughter is a fascinating, revealing memoir that bypasses indulgence to tell a universal story of things made permanent in their absence. Who says the quietest, most meditative cinema can't be utterly exhilarating?

The Eternal Daughter was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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