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The Lost Daughter: Parent, trapped

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature as director, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, is hypnotic and brilliantly unsettling

Dakota Johnson and (right) Olvia Colman in ‘The Lost Daughter’
Dakota Johnson and (right) Olvia Colman in ‘The Lost Daughter’

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Last year, 18 film-makers from around the globe contributed to a lockdown anthology called Homemade. One of the segments was directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It featured her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, playing a bereaved loner in the woods. Only 10 minutes long, it’s funny, weird and touchingly realised. I remember thinking when I watched it that Gyllenhaal—a cool and complex screen presence for almost two decades—seemed at home behind the camera.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for The Lost Daughter. The film, which Gyllenhaal adapted from a 2006 Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, won Best Screenplay at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. It’s now on Netflix, part of a strange year-end blitz of cinema for grown-ups that included Jane Campion’s and Paolo Sorrentino’s new films.

Also read: Film review: Big directors, small films in 'Homemade'

Leda (Olivia Colman) is a college professor from Cambridge vacationing in Greece. She’s in her late 40s (though people tell her she looks younger), with a clipped British accent. Showing her the place where she’s staying, the homeowner asks if she’s a teacher. “I’m a professor,” she corrects him, with a look that says the distinction is important. We see her observing an American woman and a little girl on the beach, maybe a little too intently. And we see flashes of another woman, with a British accent, peeling an orange, a girl in her lap.

Leda strikes up a conversation with the American, Nina (Dakota Johnson). Then the daughter goes missing and everyone joins in the search. It’s Leda who finds the girl, disconsolate because her doll can’t be found. “I used to have a doll like that,” Leda tells Nina. “Mina, or mini-Mama, as my mother used to call her.” Two reveals follow. The doll has been stolen by Leda. And the woman with the British accent is her as a younger woman.

The Lost Daughter has the pacing and cut-up structure of a mystery—though one that withholds both answers and questions. Gyllenhaal does something we don’t see often, painting parenthood as draining and unrewarding. Leda’s daughters are loud, insistent—we feel her need to escape even before she does anything about it. Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Hélène Louvart, cannily, don’t create a visual difference between the two time-frames. Leda’s turbulent past haunts her brittle present, so it’s only right that they look the same.

Colman, her face registering five kinds of pain at any given moment, is astonishing—and so are Jessie Buckley, scarily unhappy as the younger Leda, the deft, sympathetic Johnson, Sarsgaard in a sly turn, Ed Harris, Paul Mescal. But The Lost Daughter is so much more than an acting showcase, the kind of film that’s created to support the kinds of performances that win Oscars. Gyllenhaal finds a unique tone—intimate, caustically funny, startlingly sensual. Her camera moves right in, so close to the body at times that we can’t tell what we are looking at for a few seconds. Louvart brings the same erotic charge she did to Beach Rats, the immediacy complemented by the shard-like narrative flow assembled by editor Affonso Gonçalves.

The language used is a succession of cuts and bruises. “I’m working,” Leda’s husband says, indicating that she control their children. “I’m suffocating,” she retorts. Nina, driven to distraction by her uncontrollable daughter, asks the older woman, “Is this going to pass?” Leda, not given to false assurances, replies: “You’re so young and none of this passes.”

Through my viewing of The Lost Daughter, something nagged at me, a feeling that I had seen something akin to this. And then it hit me: it was director Jean-Marc Vallée, who died at 58 on 25 December. Gyllenhaal’s film and Vallée’s two HBO series, Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, are spiritual cousins. They are each derived from psychologically dense novels written by women and are built around complicated female characters, often recovering from or dealing with trauma brought on by family ties.

What reminded me most of Vallée, though, was the editing. Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects have the same intuitive cutting between past and present as The Lost Daughter. Time and again, Vallée would cut from the present to months in the future and then to something decades in the past, all in the space of a few seconds. It was something extraordinary in the TV landscape, a freeing-up along the lines of Terrence Malick’s intuitive edits and Pablo Larrain’s restless jumps in cinema. Vallée would have approved of how Buckley’s Leda is spliced into the waking hours and dreams of Colman’s Leda, a ghost of hard decisions past. He will be missed, but his methods have already seeped into modern American film.

“Children are a crushing responsibility.” It’s surprising to see a film so frank about the difficulties of parenthood. In one scene, Leda’s husband offers shelter to a hitchhiking couple. Leda is fascinated by how the couple made a life together while abandoning children from previous relationships. To her, they are the ones who escaped. Her daughter quotes W.H. Auden’s Crisis in Italian for the guests. The original verse, in English, reads: “Where do they come from?/ Those whom we so much dread/ As on our dearest location falls the chill/ Of their crooked wing.” Gyllenhaal’s film exists in the shade of such a wing.

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