Tilda Swinton, a shapeshifting multitasker at it’s best, is perhaps one of the few living actresses who runs the risk of looking lazy playing only one character per film. Sneaky identical twins like she played in Hail, Caesar! and “Okja” are a particular specialty of hers. Even more striking were the three roles she played in the recent Suspiria remake, with the help of some impressive prosthetics. I envision Swinton one day beating her own personal best from the 1992 sci-fi indie Teknolust, in which she played four roles: a scientist and her three cyborg clones.
Until then, there’s The Eternal Daughter, a suave and enigmatic haunted house film in which Swinton plays two women – a film director, Julie, and her mother, Rosalind – on a December holiday in the remote Welsh countryside. Your destination is a ramshackle old hotel that looms out of the darkness for the first few moments like Manderley or The Overlook or the setting of a Hammer 50’s horror film. It’s a fabulously evocative backdrop that opens to reveal shadowy halls, dizzying stairwells and hypnotically patterned wallpaper, much of which is bathed in a slightly greenish hue that could be the light of an exit sign or something dreamily ominous. (Production design by Stéphane Collonge.)
English writer and director Joanna Hogg has always excelled at creating a sense of place, whether it’s the stunning island getaway in her 2010 drama Archipelago or the meticulous recreation of her own 1980s London flat in her gorgeous current one Diptych of “The Souvenir” (2019) and “The Souvenir Part II” (2021). If you’ve seen either one, you’ll immediately recognize Swinton’s Rosalind, a few years older and with a rather raspy voice, though as elegant as ever in dress and demeanor. You’ll also know that Julie, with her invigorating warmth and stylish dark bob, is a proxy for Hogg himself, and that this odd, disturbing story is, to some extent, drawn from real life. But if The Eternal Daughter is sort of a sequel to the Souvenir films, it’s also a more mysterious sort of cinematic memoir.
Hogg rummages through her garden of memories again and discovers dark tendrils filled with tension and quasi-supernatural omens. She also taps into a vein of wry comedy that resonates all the more in the stillness and solemnity of her impeccably composed images. The hotel, still the ramshackle country mansion before the post-war renovation, groans and shudders under the weight of many years. The air is chilly, the service cooler, the WiFi non-existent. Upon arrival, Julie is greeted by a snippy hotel receptionist (a deliciously passive-aggressive Carly-Sophia Davies) who informs her that the double room she booked months ago isn’t available, not to mention that Julie and Rosalind clearly the only ones of the hotel are guests. Well, she and Rosalind’s trusty dog, Louis (played by one of Swinton’s own spaniels, also named Louis).
But if nobody else lives on the property, how do you explain the loud popping noises that disturb Julie’s sleep at night? Or the invisible intruder who eventually opens the door to her room and allows Louis to escape? Is it just a trick of the wind or is something more spooky going on? Don’t worry too much about Louis, by the way; Hogg might enjoy horror conventions, but this isn’t one of those sadistic exercises involving butchering the family pet. The creepy gothic atmosphere is spiced up with a playful touch. We are invited to lose ourselves in the mists, moonlight and ominous music that accompanies Julie’s strolls around the hotel grounds, and enjoy the gloom and grain of Ed Rutherford’s 16mm cinematography.
Swinton’s casting is the film’s boldest magic and also its most subtle. Hogg, working in her usual intimate, leisurely style, deftly downplays her own gimmick. She rarely positions Julie and Rosalind in the same shot, instead rhythmically cutting back and forth between them mid-conversation. It’s a technique that minimizes the need for body doubling and digital tricks, and a great reminder of just how much magic a resourceful filmmaker can conjure up on a budget.
Helle le Fevre’s steady back and forth also fits Julie and Rosalind’s conversational rhythms, which might sound to some ears as quintessentially English restraint. The two are polite, hesitant, and reluctant to kick each other’s sentences. They start most mornings by going over their respective plans: Rosalind will spend the day resting, Julie will go upstairs and try to write something, and they will both do their best to avoid the pesky cousin nearby who is dying to pay them a visit. But their most insightful and moving conversations unfold in the hushed dining room where they meet in the evenings, choosing appetizers from a woefully limited menu and dancing delicately around the matters at hand.
At the heart of this mother-daughter relationship lies mystery, and The Eternal Daughter is slow to reveal its secrets despite its short running time. Suffice it to say that it has something to do with Rosalind’s last visit to these premises decades ago, when she was brought here to seek shelter as a child during the war. Her memories of that time are an unsurprising mixture of idyll and trauma. They’re also a potential source of artistic inspiration for Julie, who brought Rosalind back to that exact spot with more than just a nostalgic vacation.
What right does a storyteller have to draw on the experiences of others? Hogg didn’t spare Julie that difficult question in The Souvenir, and here she once again subjects the character—and thus herself—to a severe critical scrutiny. Julie’s own reservations are evident in the furtive way she turns on her Dictaphone when Rosalind begins to remember, and also in the guilt she feels when her sensitive exploration of her mother’s memories hits a nerve. One way of interpreting the film’s genre trappings — the odd noises, the creeping uneasiness, the ever-present loneliness, the often indefinite time of day, the deft use of mirrors to shatter Julie’s own image — is a manifestation of that guilt. Julie gets lost in both an ethical fog and a literal one.
All of this would have made The Eternal Daughter play like a dubious exercise in self-doubt, an excuse for one’s existence. But the film is much more than that. Hogg has created a deeply moving tribute to her mother, brimming with wit and affection. And in Swinton’s exquisitely sculpted performances, she’s pulled off something far more profound than a mere stunt. Swinton’s two faces hint at the strange, often awkward, transference of identity that can take place between mothers and daughters over time. They also give rise to the idea that stepping into another’s experience at some level means becoming themselves, partaking of their flesh and spirit.
This is personal filmmaking as a parlor trick, as a mesmerizing creative séance. As such, it’s designed to make you question your grasp on reality, just as Julie questions hers. Hogg is happy to lead us up the garden path, never more literally than when a benevolent groundsman (Joseph Mydell) shows up one night to help Julie and maybe Rosalind too. At the same time, the director has more on his mind than elaborate banter, and once the fog lifts, which it eventually does, the pattern he reveals has a beautiful, harrowing clarity.
What seemed like one kind of story suddenly transforms into another before our eyes. And the atmosphere of emotional caution, in hindsight, reveals the deep, agonizing feeling that was there all along. “The Eternal Daughter” is haunting, like the best ghost stories. The best love stories too.
“The Eternal Daughter”
Rated: PG-13, for some drug material
Duration: 1 hour, 36 minutes
To play: Begins December 2nd at the Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-30/review-eternal-daughter-tilda-swinton-joanna-hogg ‘Eternal Daughter’ review: Tilda Swinton meets Tilda Swinton