Friday 1 December 2023

Separate tables: "The Eternal Daughter"

A neatfreak might consider
The Eternal Daughter a souvenir of The Souvenir. From the autobiographical diptych that marked a notable leap forwards for this filmography, the writer-director recalls two key characterisations, as well as a dog and Tilda Swinton, the latter now cast in a dual role: as both a daughter (the role Swinton's own offspring Honor Swinton Byrne played in the Souvenirs) and a mother (the role Swinton herself played) dispatched on a fateful birthday-weekend break to an isolated hotel that naturally sets us to thinking of The Shining. (For Scatman Crothers, Hogg swaps in Joseph Mydell, adapting rather better to these underpopulated corridors than his fellow guests.) Around the twin Tildas, the screen comes to fill with phantoms and spectres, sometimes mere tricks of the light. In the opening scene, the minicab driver transporting our gals to this awayday reports seeing a ghost in the vicinity; the mother hazily recollects her younger days growing up on or around this land; and, throughout, The Eternal Daughter - recognisably a film made by the earnest cineaste who grew up before our eyes in the Souvenirs - only leans into reminiscences of and resemblances to films past. As the fog descended over the hotel gardens, I started to wonder whether opportunistic producers hadn't encouraged Hogg to make a horror film that might build on her previous films' critical and commercial success. Yet instead of another Conjuring, she's come up with something that remains distinctively Hoggish: deeply personal, awkward in its means of expression, fair bristling with passive-aggression. It's not a film where things go bump in the night; the horror evoked by The Eternal Daughter is that of people rubbing one another up the wrong way.

It's a funny one, in short, at once funny-ha ha and funny-strange. A big part of what's so odd is a technical limitation: Hogg simply doesn't have the budget to digitise Tilda - as, say, David Fincher did Armie Hammer for The Social Network - and so mother and daughter have for the most part to interact from adjacent shots and frames. It isn't only the characters who pass into a sort of limbo; the film does, too, coming to resemble a lowish-budget horror flick from an earlier age. The question that arises is how intentional this is. Hogg's technique strikes the eye as sophisticated enough, in the main. The cutting between the two women (by Helle Le Fevre, a holdover from the Souvenirs) is sharp, drawing us into their tricky dynamic; Swinton, proven ally of experimentally inclined directors, does exceptional work in differentiating between the two main characters, and never once misses an eyeline. Hogg even permits herself the odd deft formal gag, such as the reveal that the ominous music heard over one transition is actually a tune hummed by the hotel's receptionist/resident dogsbody (Carly-Sophia Davies, a bolshy hoot) as she idly curates her Insta grid. Yet where the Souvenir one-two knew exactly what it was and what it wanted to communicate, The Eternal Daughter has an inbuilt rawness, even raggedness that struck at least this viewer as somewhat double-edged: it absolutely matches the emotions mother and child are seen circling and working through, but it also might just rub you too up the wrong way from time to time. I think I mean it as a compliment when I say the last thing Hogg wants to be here is slick, but then I couldn't be entirely sure of that.

No denying the film is strong on the perils of proximity. The whole narrative thrust comes from the daughter, already jittery over the state of play between her and mum, becoming freaked out upon glimpsing her mother's ghostly appearance at a darkened window, and realising that's both who she is and who she's destined to be. The hotel's plump-cushioned emptiness permits an extended study of enforced intimacy; there's barely anybody else around to distract from the central bond-slash-bind. (Even the Davies character, caught bunking off from her desk for unhappy trysts with a passing boyracer, scarcely wants to be here.) We learn more about this family's backstory than we did from the Souvenirs, but we also can't miss how mother and daughter irk and irritate one another, as the characters did in Hogg's breakthrough films. They're pieces in a puzzle that, like Hogg's two-shots, tesselate altogether uncomfortably; they occasionally reach out for a hug or some other reassurance, only to recoil with hands full of splinters. (One reason Tilda has never gone full Downton: her upper-middle class characters come with spikes as standard.) Thus does Hogg dig into our push-pull relationship with our elders, turning up and examining the little resentments and grievances that threaten to poison any groundswells of love and gratitude: what makes the eternity of that title seem at once gift and punishment. If the result is a trickier one to parse than the Souvenirs - contingent as it is on whatever was on its maker's mind scene by scene, shot by shot; the hotel operates as a bricks-and-mortar analogue for the Hogg headspace - it remains plenty atmospheric, and an unmistakable example (still rare within the British cinema) of filmmaking as therapy, a work that prints a consciousness on screen without apparent mediation or interference. My advice? Take an analyst pal or at the very least a thick notepad. If Hogg pursues this line of thought any further, we're all going to have to start billing her by the hour.

The Eternal Daughter is now playing in selected cinemas.

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