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Motherhood, Memory, and Gothic Immortalisation In The 'Eternal Daughter'



The Eternal Daughter
Image courtesy of Annie Spratt / Ricoh Imaging Company (via Unsplash)

‘She stretched out her arms to the shadows and the shadows within the shadow. 

“They came because I loved them—because I needed them—I must have made them come. Was that wrong, think you?”’ 

(from the short story ‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling that inspired Joanna Hogg to turn The Eternal Daughter into a ghost story)

 

Joanna Hogg beckons viewers on a process of katabasis in The Eternal Daughter, a semi-autobiographical gothic tale in which she attempts to make sense of her mother and the life she’s led. The ever-complex mother-daughter relationship is exhibited during a stay at a hotel for her mother Rosalind’s (Tilda Swinton) birthday, previously her aunt's manor that sheltered her from London during World War Two. Throughout her stay, the protagonist Julie (also Swinton), a filmmaker, hopes to write a screenplay about her mother’s declining life. In the shadows of this film, she shakes death’s hand, bears silent witness to the horrors of anticipatory loss and bewitches you to experience the transcendence of linear time into a kaleidoscope of scattered temporality and memories—‘a ghost story,’ a love story and everything in between.   


Embodying the essence of a true Hogg film, space is destiny. Following the meticulously restored Kensington flat of her youth used as a set in her Souvenir films, we now find ourselves observing an aged Julie attempting to time travel to Rosalind’s youth whilst staying at the hotel. Checking into the gothic manor, Julie requests a room that is significant to Rosalind, the room she stayed in as a young girl. During their time together, Julie sees each room act as a portal for Rosalind, evoking long-buried memories of her past. Julie learns of painful moments, like the death of Rosalind’s brother during the war, and overcome with the guilt of allowing these memories to resurrect, she becomes hellbent on pleasing her mother at all costs. Grappling with the anxiety of misremembering her mother as somebody void of negativity and pain, the ethics of her screenwriting slowly eat away at her. Singing to the forever intricate mother-daughter relationship, we find two women—the same visage in different forms—echoing subliminal affections that never quite seem to reach Julie, who has grown to be a desperate daughter, too restless with her present and her mother’s past to notice. She governs her emotions, struggling to present a façade of contentment.


 The classic haunted house, nestled in the Welsh countryside evokes morbid excitement as soon as the taxi lights cast it in gold. Situated as a supporting role, the hotel sign illuminates “Moel Famau”. Deriving from the Old Welsh for ‘mother mountain’, the name refers to the highest peak in Flintshire. Ancient in its mud and eternal in its namesake, it makes for a whisper of connectedness that propels this film forward. From Hogg gaining inspiration for Rosalind from her own mother to Julie basing Julie on herself (Swinton even wearing her own mother’s clothes to film many of the scenes), “Moel Famau” acts as a meta streak that permeates throughout the film.  From the howling of the wind to the percussion of the branches against the window, every sense is exposed to the natural. The gothic wildness of the space, the feeling that mysteries are fruitful in the shadows of the night is a point of contrast to the tight-lipped, middle-class Englishness that is so prevalent in Hogg’s films. This is not to discredit nor simplify the characters, merely to note the claustrophobia that can be felt watching them attempt to dissect emotions and problems with confining rigidity. Hogg revealed that the script was almost entirely improvised, with Swinton essentially talking to the air. Relying entirely on herself and memory, would explain the sometimes inattentive responses that show how they don’t truly listen to each other in the dialogue-heavy scenes highlight—though does any mother and daughter? Through letting the conversations bubble up organically, there feels to be no escape from their pandering conversations regarding Rosalind’s deteriorating health and Julie's aversion to acknowledging it, instead scrambling to carry on passively, as if she can’t see her mother in her frail state. You begin to wonder if Julie can see her mother at all or if it’s just a reflection; a muddled projection of a person.


There’s a poignant clash of emotions with the fiery Welsh receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), whose reckless abandon of courtesy startles and offers little solace to Julie. Her position feels closely related to the wild wind and to the frenzy that Julie is trying to suppress. Together, they act as a mouthpiece for Julie’s rampant anxieties regarding her mother’s decline. 


Through Hogg’s genre play, marrying the gothic with the mundane, the haunting begins. Supernatural experiences arise from radical simplicity, invalidating otherwise rigid boundaries between alive and dead or reality and dream. Hogg masters the simple yet powerful mutability of time and space, with the gothic elements utilised to build bridges between the boundaries of past and present. Every room is haunted. As Rosalind wanders the corridors of the hotel, she wanders simultaneously through apparitions of her past. Every room is a palimpsest of stories and emotions, hoarded ghosts only alive in her mind—crucially intangible to Julie. This is highlighted as Rosalind shares stories of her brother, and Julie erupts into a river of tears. Unaware of her mother’s past, we watch how Julie grapples with the enigma of her mother; to realise the life she led before being a mother, to never fully know this ‘version’ of her strains their relationship tenfold. The mirrored faces of Swinton’s captivating double act are especially striking in the scene of Rosalind’s birthday dinner. An incredibly excited Julie arranges and rearranges the setup of the table until it’s perfect, only for Rosalind’s health to quickly turn and leave her unable to eat. Julie’s entire demeanour is instantly changed and she refuses to eat, exclaiming “I’m not hungry if you don’t have hunger.” Comically dramatic, it transports her back to the womb. Where does her mother end and she begin? She is simultaneously alive and unborn, not being quite able to bridge the gap without her mother. Their dynamic is consistently unsettled, with Julie’s moods and in this instance, bodily functions relying entirely on her mother’s. This dependence feels childlike, almost bargaining to be treated as such once more. We watch as Julie breaks down, birthday cake in hand, finally coming to terms with their eventual separation. This scene feels like an almost catharsis of her suppressed anxieties, and as she finally embodies the wild weather with her wails, there’s a sense of painful acceptance that’s in itself chilling to watch. Their relationship is enigmatic, with Swinton describing it as “two women in very different stages in their life trying to connect”.


The window next to their table is a final reminder that we are viewing from the inside out. The manor walls serve as a divider between reality, the walls of Julie’s mind as a space to live fragmentedly through her mother. There are rude infiltrations of reality that disrupt her meditations, and therefore ours too. From the Argento green of the fire exit sign to the blaring techno music from the car outside her window, Julie is constantly stopped from getting to experience the hotel as an extension of her mind, a metaphysical space for wandering and remembering.


Hogg leaves us reading between the lines of the unspoken, witnessing nostalgia as a constant state of delirium where boundaries of reality are forever disturbed. The evocation of painful emotions is an invitation to cohabit with ghosts. The reciting of memories is a litany, a summoning ritual, an acceptance of possession. The Eternal Daughter is a gothic ghost story rife with ghosts that refuse to die. Raging against finality they challenge the very definition of endings. The subdued frenzy within Julie is sickly relatable, she holds dearly an intrinsic knowing from observing her mother’s mortality and coming to terms with her own that she is about to be haunted too. The film’s realism is its scariest aspect; towards the end, you almost wish it could be explained away by a poltergeist. Instead, it lets you linger on the love that isn’t enough to bring back, but within the liminality of our minds, it can resurrect. 


Returning to Kipling’s short, it is clear where Hogg took her inspiration from—we see the character’s proclivity to haunt in the shadows of these memories, clinging to love emphasised by Bill (Joseph Mydell), the hotel’s gentle groundskeeper, who we see mainly at night, lurking and wandering, dubious of his intentions until an impactful scene in which he explains to Julie that it’s to feel close to the memory of his late wife who worked alongside him at the hotel. He explains, almost ritualistically, how playing the flute at night the way he remembers her doing, is how he feels closest to her. His grief feels immeasurable, and his haunting is one he chooses. A somewhat likeness to Brontë’s Heathcliff, he bids that she haunt him. Haunting as comfort and love, a strange consolation greets us as the sun rises for the first time the morning Julie is set to leave. She lies in bed, her laptop screen glimmering with the first sentences of her screenplay—a scene that describes the familiar opening sequence of the film. A cyclical retelling of memories which we feel might never leave Julie, but we come to accept alongside her, that there is magic and immortality in evocation, through love and for Hogg, through cinema.


 

Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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