The Eternal Daughter review: a remarkable collaboration between Tilda Swinton and Joanna Hogg

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of A24 Films

A quietly devastating new work from one of the clearest voices in contemporary cinema, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter is a strange and aching examination of mothers and their daughters.

It emerges gradually, as if through a haze, to act as a wonderful epilogue to Hogg’s The Souvenir films, and boasts a performance of breathtaking complexity from Tilda Swinton playing both a mother and her daughter.

But, like all of Hogg’s films, what strikes me most about The Eternal Daughter is how unbearably personal it feels: Hogg holds the mirror up to herself. The result is a piece of pained autobiography which is certainly the zenith of Hogg’s filmography and is one of the best films of the year.

The Eternal Daughter follows a filmmaker called Julie (Tilda Swinton), who is bringing her elderly mother to a country house hotel for her birthday. Julie is the name used by Hogg in 2019’s The Souvenir and its 2022 sequel as a stand-in for herself.

In The Eternal Daughter we see that Julie, now middle-aged, is working on a screenplay about her mother, called Rosalind (also the name of the mother from The Souvenir films) but the relationship appears to be strained. We gather that there is too much to say and not enough time.

Hogg posits this film as a coda of sorts to The Souvenir, but where those films were defined too often by drab realism and occasionally functionality The Eternal Daughter sees Hogg toying with genre in playful and confounding ways.

The hotel has a weirdly Gothic quality, with doors opening and closing as if pushed by invisible hands. The receptionist (Carly Sophia Davies) is coldly unwelcoming. Julie and Rosalind are ostensibly the hotel’s only guests, but Julie is disturbed by bumps in the night in the upstairs rooms.

It’s not necessarily scary, but even on a second-viewing the film remained genuinely unsettling. Hogg, perhaps, could’ve pushed the chills more; The Eternal Daughter occasionally veers close to camp. The climactic dinner scene upset me deeply but elicited laughs from elsewhere in the theatre.

Not that The Eternal Daughter is devoid of the hallmarks of previous Hogg features. There is an emphasis on architecture and space: like in 2013’s Exhibition, in which cold modernist house signified romantic stagnation, the hotel here suggests the compartmentalisation of memory, its myriad rooms hinting towards buried traumas. Note too the one-sided phone calls and those wonderful medium shots which place us, like ghosts, as a third unseen observer.

Hogg has always suggested that past and present uneasily share the same spaces and the two melt into each other for unsettling results here. An ingenuous decision is that Swinton plays both Julie and Rosalind, yet they are never seen together.

Instead, Hogg and cinematographer Ed Rutherford shoot them in separate frames so that their psychological distance is made manifest by the edges of the image itself. It’s an audacious and startling leap for Swinton, and she plays it beautifully. Both women have the same voice and share physical mannerisms, sweetly gesturing to the ways we carry our parents in our very physicality.

The film is structured around a series of dinners in the hotel’s empty restaurant: in the Q&A I was lucky to attend, Swinton said that she’d spend the morning improvising as Julie and the afternoon improvising as Rosalind. Editor Helle Le Fevre and Hogg would then stitch these two conversations into one, giving the impression of a continuous conversation. These scenes have a shot-reverse-shot rhythm which is gently hypnotic and makes the film’s spookier trappings even more effective.

The Eternal Daughter is an astonishing feat of filmmaking, a labyrinthine examination of parents and what they pass onto their children, and an emotionally complex and stylistically radical image of an artist grappling with grief and middle age.

It suggests a melding of past and present not only in that it sees Hogg breaking into new ground whilst playing with the motifs of her previous works, but through Swinton’s genuine, corporeal embodiment of a mother and her daughter. Hogg, it’s painfully clear, is baring her very soul for us. We cannot look away.

The Eternal Daughter – official trailer

The Eternal Daughter is released by A24 and BBC Film across UK cinemas on 24 November 2023, running at The Mockingbird Cinema from 24 to 30 November.

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