Relationships between parents and children are among the most prominent themes of this year’s Venice Film Festival. But few films treat them as uniquely as The Eternal Daughter, where the famous actress Tilda Swinton portrayed both mother and daughter.
British director Joanna Hogg’s new film premiered this Tuesday. It tells the story of a middle-aged daughter and her aging, widowed mother. During a birthday party in a largely abandoned hotel in the Welsh countryside, they share family secrets and try to understand some of their decisions. For example, why the daughter, a filmmaker, decided to remain childless and take care of her pictures instead of offspring.
The sixty-two-year-old director Hoggová presented both characters, mother and daughter, in the partially autobiographical titles The Souvenir and The Souvenir: Part II. They took place in the 80s of the last century, with the novelty they form a free trilogy.
Tilda Swinton plays both mother and daughter. | Photo: A24
While in the first two parts, Tilda Swinton only portrayed the mother, a member of the upper social class, this time the director suggested that she take on both roles. “I immediately realized that it was the right decision,” notes the director, who this duality allowed to show how some women inevitably see a piece of themselves in their mothers and how “sometimes the daughter slowly becomes her mother”.
The drama unfolds in the middle of December in a three-century-old house where the floorboards are cracking and the ceiling beams are falling. In the building that has gargoyles and snakes on the gable, my mother grew up during the war.
It’s obvious from the start that something is wrong here. The young night receptionist claims that all the rooms are occupied, even though the heroines always dine alone in the mausoleum-like hotel restaurant. And when the receptionist disappears after her never-seen boyfriend at the end of her shift, with loud dance music blaring from their car, the female protagonists seem to be alone. The only company they have is a dog.
“The film has the atmosphere of a horror film about a ghost, but I would still call it one of the most realistic films I’ve ever made. A lot is based on what a person remembers and what they’ve experienced,” says director Hoggová, who made it to the competition at the Venice festival for the first time. She shot on classic sixteen-millimeter film during the pandemic.
Sixty-one-year-old Tilda Swinton, winner of an Oscar for supporting performance in the film Michael Clayton, arrived at the festival with her hair dyed yellow. She said it was in honor of Ukraine resisting the Russian invasion. The country has a yellow-blue flag, the actress wore a purple dress on the red carpet.
Of the two characters she played in the news, she found it easier to play the aging mother suppressing deep sadness and pain, the reasons for which, however, she does not want to talk about. In this role, Swinton used the experience from the previous two films.
All the more she had to think about how she would handle her daughter Julie, who was previously played by her real daughter, now twenty-four-year-old Honor Swinton Byrne from Scotland. “I was based on what Honor has woven into this character, even though she no longer works in the new film,” points out Swinton.
However, instead of her daughter, the actress acts with her real dog, Louis, in the news. He seemed to be urging her on the screen with a constant howl to leave the hotel immersed in the winter fog.
“He’s my dog. He’ll do what I tell him,” comments Swinton. “When you’re working with dogs trained to act in movies, they’re not really interested in you. They’re more interested in the guy standing off-frame behind you with treats in his pocket.”
Pictured is Tilda Swinton. | Photo: A24
According to the server Indiewire.com, the film resembles a gothic horror film about a woman who tries to see her own ghost. It is not an easy spectacle, warns the reviewer.
“Hogg seems to be questioning her right and ability to make a movie about her own mother with this story. So she made a movie about her alter ego questioning her right and ability to make a movie about her own mother,” suggests the complexity of the web’s narrative.
Most of the story consists of shots of the daughter preparing her mother’s medicine, keeping her company during dinner, or trying to discover where the mysterious noises are coming from in the hotel. When he does exchange a few words with someone now and then, it is reminiscent of the dialogues that Jack Nicholson’s character had in the famous horror movie Enlightenment. After all, the new product indirectly refers to him by also including Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste by the composer Béla Bartók in the soundtrack.
The British Guardian critic awarded the film four out of five stars. He appreciates that it captures real intimacy and “emotional generosity”.
Although it can be described as a mysterious psychological pseudo-horror in terms of genre, it does not try to scare the viewer. “It’s about how mysterious our parents’ lives are, how we can’t imagine them before they brought us into the world, about how they are somehow terribly close to us and at the same time impenetrably distant,” summarizes the reviewer.