Tilda Swinton Carries Dual Roles With Ease In Joanna Hogg’s Atmospheric Drama [Venice]

Dec 29, 2022

There’s always been a haunted mood in Joanna Hogg’s films, felt both in the deceptively mundane domestic rhythms of the likes of “Exhibition” and “Archipelago,” and in the exquisite memory pieces, “The Souvenir” and “The Souvenir Part II.” Like the best and most personal of storytellers—Chantal Akerman comes to mind as a creator with akin sensibilities—Hogg is a filmmaker possessed by the slivers of her recollections. In a way, she can’t help but sneak in—and sometimes, blatantly pour—remembrances into her tales, infusing them with the ghosts of the past. The two (very) loosely autobiographical “Souvenir” films that chart the life of Honor Swinton Byrne’s film student Julie (a Hogg stand-in) are perhaps the best examples of her approach to art as a miner of personal history, one that honored both an echo of her younger self, and her mother.
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This isn’t stated anywhere, but the hypnotizing if not somewhat underpowered “The Eternal Daughter” continues the saga of “The Souvenir” to some extent, picking up Julie’s story a few decades later in a much different phase of her life as an established, childless filmmaker navigating feelings of guilt. In that regard, it isn’t a direct sequel, but an offshoot. Think of it as, “The Eternal Daughter: A Souvenir Story” if you will, as part of a delightfully sophisticated “Joanna Hogg Cinematic Universe” (let’s trademark this), strictly made for mournful grown-ups who enjoy a good campfire and a tearful, Victorian Gothic supernatural story with real-world resonance.
Indeed, Hogg veers into the otherworldly in her latest and bewitchingly so, with an unapologetically feminine touch. Sadly, daughter Swinton isn’t in this chapter, and you do miss the unique aura of vulnerability Honor brings along. On the bright side, her absence means getting two Tilda Swintons, and who could argue against that meta-glee? One plays a now-aged and seasoned filmmaker Julie, with a façade that genuinely looks like her daughter Honor’s, with a little help from a very Julie-esque haircut and fashion sense. On this version of Tilda, you can see exactly how Honor’s Julie has evolved to become her in both form and vibe, donned in customary oversized scarves, chic overcoats and geometric-patterned frocks. (Costuming duties once again fall on the brilliant Grace Snell of “The Souvenir I/II”.) The other Tilda is a further aged mama Rosalind, as composed and elegant as ever with a deeply melancholic heart she privately harbors.
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Apart from the family’s sweetly adorable Spaniel Louis (who deserves some kind of an award with this performance), the duo is alone in their visit to an imposing stately hotel in the remote Welsh countryside on an especially misty night. The check-in process proves to be quite the ordeal, with the young receptionist behind the desk (a distinctly red-lipped and playfully curt Carly-Sophia Davies, terrific) being rather dismissive. Too bad they’re late for dinner. No, the room they actually reserved isn’t available (even though we don’t ever get to see anyone else staying in the hotel). No, she can’t make an exception for this or that. In this scene and several others that involve the young clerk, it’s rather hilarious to witness the old-school English ladies continuing to speak in the politest manner possible even when Davies’ unnamed and perfectly realized character scolds them for just about anything, including not being quick enough with their dinner order. (“There are only four things on the menu!”)
Davies and her click-clacking heels in this extremely quiet mansion are the only comic relief “The Eternal Daughter” offers. Slowly, the writer-director reveals that Julie and Rosalind are here not only to take a mother-daughter bonding break for a few days but also to commemorate the past. We get to understand the Inn used to be a family home to Rosalind a lifetime ago, with memories both joyful and shockingly tragic; those that are sweet and heartrending. Chipper one moment and forlorn the next, the duo often doesn’t seem to know how to feel on repurposed grounds like this. On the brink of a new project, Julie reads a book of ghost stories as pastime and prep, trying to dutifully grasp her mother’s anxieties about the past with compassion. “I feel like I’m trespassing,” remarks Rosalind in one of the film’s most subtly reflective moments. And Hogg builds her characters with such delicate, intimate attention to detail in movement and sentiment that we understand exactly what she means by that sensation of intrusion.
Also effective in the film is Hogg’s handle on the eerie elements and creepy visuals, all aptly shot on grainy filmstock by DP Ed Rutherford. In that regard, dim headlights cutting through a misty night, a faint yet spooky apparition on the window, howling winds, architectural sounds (that an increasingly rattled Julie calls “pervasive noises”), and the whines of poor little Louis all propel the sense of unease. The drama swells in measured doses throughout, with the quiet and music-less dinners culminating in a gloomy and heartbreakingly eventful birthday celebration for Mama Swinton. Elsewhere, a couple of other players briefly enter the picture, boosting the film’s sense of mystery reminiscent of a lowkey “The Shining.” One is a second hotel employee (Joseph Mydell) that lends a listening ear to both women on separate occasions. The other is a cousin that pays a visit to the hotel out of nowhere, whom Julie politely yet firmly turns away.
The greatest trick “The Eternal Daughter” pulls is making one gradually forget that we’re basically watching a film with two Tilda Swintons. She brings such discernibly separate nuances to her two performances that it eventually feels and looks like we’re in the company of distinctly different (but similarly courteous) people, who remain remarkably collected and respectful even during the fussiest disagreements. Still, you do wish for a slightly higher-pitched crescendo somewhere in the story. While “The Eternal Daughter” manages to sell a truly spine-tingling atmosphere of ghosts, it feels closer to a thought and style experiment in the aftermath. But the film’s time-and-logic bending final reveal arrives as a gut punch nonetheless, with a restrained parting note both ethereal and lifelike. [A-]
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