Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter is, among other things, a spiritual sequel to her exquisite recent films The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021). Those movies studied a fledgling filmmaker named Julie Hart, who, bearing some autobiographical resemblance to Hogg herself, wound her way through memories of dating a charismatic, troubled drug addict, attending film school in England in the 1980s, and trying to carve out an artistic identity for herself under the conflicted but supportive eye of her parents and friends. In those movies, Julie was played by Honor Swinton Byrne. The character’s mother was played by the actress’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton. There was, in other words, already an eerie, poignant echoing at stake in the Souvenir movies, with Byrne loosely playing a version of the director and Swinton standing in for both of their mothers, fictionalized and not.
In The Eternal Daughter, Hogg revisits Julie later in her life. And Tilda Swinton has been cast as Julie and her mother, both, like two distinct but twined riffs on the same idea of a person. Now, we see the entire project collapse further down into itself in one startling, moving conceit. The Eternal Daughter is not called The Souvenir Part III for good reason. It sets out in its own direction. But this movie, with its subtle, determined touches of grief, is clearly haunted by what came before.
Like the other films, The Eternal Daughter is a movie about reality and its haunted double: memory. But on the surface, this new chapter is old-fashioned gothic. This is the first thing that sets it apart from its predecessors. Julie Hart (Swinton) and her mother Rosalind (Swinton, again) escape to an 18th-century hotel to, at minimum, celebrate the older woman’s birthday. The choice of setting is pointed. Rosalind has memories at this hotel; she spent her younger, wartime years here. Julie is trying to write a movie about her relationship with her mother, and it’s here in this place, she thinks, that she can get this loving but emotionally taut woman to open up to her about her past. She believes that her mother has happy memories here and wants to mine them, in the way that anyone asking questions about their parents’ before-lives is really trying to understand them. But Rosalind, who largely keeps to her bed during their stay, doesn’t quite have happy memories to share. She offers what the hotel brings to mind: memories of war and loss, a whole terrain of experiences that her daughter will never entirely understand because she was not expecting them. There is an entire life to her mother that Julie does not know. Asking about that life is a personal gesture. The hope may be that Julie can convert the personal into art — something beyond them both.
The thing about old hotels set on spacious, foggy, isolated grounds, however, is that they have a way of appearing to be otherworldly, inhabited by some Other, whether or not they really are. There is no controlling what ghosts this place may stir up in Julie’s mother. But ghosts are what The Eternal Daughter has in store. The movie opens with headlights cutting through the night, far off in the distance, wending their way through fog. In this moment, mother and daughter are still on their way to the hotel in a hired car. They are being treated to a ghost story by their driver, a memory surely inspired by the spookiness of their surroundings. The Eternal Daughter is a movie in which the environment overwhelms, so clearly and heavily manifest that it amounts to a character of its own. There’s the old hotel, with its green exit lights glowing spookily at night, and its tight corridors, its stairwell that invites notions of optical illusions, and its old-house creakiness, with doors that cannot open or shut without announcing their age and fog that’s almost surreal, vast and thick enough to choke out any view of the surrounding greenery at night. We’re seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There’s something off about all of it — the hotel is empty but for the younger, dryly humorous receptionist working by day (played by Carly-Sophia Davies) and a friendly groundskeeper (Joseph Mydell) stalking the property by night. Our nearest sense of the outside world arrives by only the loosest tethers: Julie’s calls to her husband, whose voice we never hear; the receptionist’s boyfriend, who picks her up every night, and whose wickedness behind the wheel and loud music nearly amount to a fully-formed personality, a person you don’t have to meet to be able to imagine; and an annoying cousin of the Harts, named Alistair, who pays a very quick, noticeably unwanted visit. Traipsing between Julie and Rosalind’s feet is the mother’s beloved dog, a gentle Springer Spaniel named Louis.
The rest, as they say, is noise, eerie sounds that Julie spends much of the movie seeking out, desperate to understand the source — to understand if this place is as haunted as it seems. The drama of The Eternal Daughter is delightfully, purposefully thin. Laying it out won’t tell you much. Julie wanders about, taunted by the old hotel’s ambient commotion. Each day of their stay, she steals away to a room high in the building — the only place with a reliable WiFi signal — to try to get work done on her script. Mother and daughter share meals in a dining room that they have entirely to themselves. They chat every morning and night, bodies swallowed up by the abundant floral patterns papering every surface of their room. Julie asks questions about her mother’s memories of this place. At night, she ritualistically calls her husband while walking her mother’s dog. The dog regularly barks at nothing; one day, eventfully, he escapes their hotel room. Julie befriends the groundskeeper while out looking for the dog. She has brittle interactions with the young receptionist. She spots a ghost in a window, or thinks she does. And then the movie reaches its climax: Her mother’s birthday.
How can a movie that seemingly does so little amount to so much? It’s because of the story lurking beyond it all — the psychological battle being waged, so quietly, under the surface of everything. (Again, in line with the gothic mode.) The thinking seemingly goes that through this project, Julie will keep something of her bond to her mother alive, always. She thinks that through the process of performing this understanding, she will truly come to understand. This is a mother that she’s always tried to please — that she will always, we sense, be trying to please. Hence: the eternal daughter. She will always be the dutiful child. What Hogg’s movie dramatizes is Julie’s labored recognition that, despite her sense of duty, her mother, however loving, will always be just a hair’s breadth out of reach.
The Eternal Daughter isn’t the kind of movie that encourages us to seek out the clues to what’s “really” going on. But it certainly plays with that idea. It inspires suspicion. There’s an artifice to it — to the unlikely emptiness of this hotel, to the scenes of Tilda Swinton having long conversations with Tilda Swinton — that gets our guard up, only for Hogg to gently chip away at our defenses. The hotel is full of mirrors, from the small ovules hanging in its hallways to the young receptionist’s compact, and the many-faced vanity in Rosalind and Julie’s bedroom, and even the windows, in which Julie, looking outward, is also always facing herself. The more we see these mirrors, the more we feel that we and Julie are being haunted by something just on the verge of being revealed — caught, glimpsed out of the corner of our eye, like an apparition never meant to be seen.
It turns out that what Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter has to reveal is not a ghost, per se, but a hard truth, something Julie must learn to reconcile for herself. Hogg’s genius, more apparent in each subsequent chapter of the Souvenir films, is for reminding us that movies are a dream-space, a ghostlike fiction that’s always two steps removed from reality. There’s life, there’s memory, and there’s the movie — a copy of a copy, at best, smudged and imperfect and incredibly rich on its own terms. Her way into this idea isn’t by diving right into fantasy, but instead the opposite. She serves up what feels like reality only to corrode the boundaries between what’s real and not, manipulating time, sound and image until that realism reveals itself to have been manufactured. Look at the impressionistic hop-skip through the events of the first Souvenir movie, like turning the pages of a photo album and dwelling on the memories brought to mind by each image. There, we aren’t watching the playback of an actual mind, but we feel like we are, just as we’re equally aware that we’re only watching a movie, a self-aware imitation of how a mind might work.
The Eternal Daughter’s sense of illusion is even more heightened. The artifice of it all begins to feel unnatural, like we’re trapped in a vacuum of Julie’s own making, or rather like we’re sitting on the sound stage of a movie set, right next to the fog machines. Tilda Swinton and the other actors are, of course, flesh and blood. They project real emotions; even the receptionist has her moment, late in the movie, of looking on at what’s happening with bemused sympathy. But the gorgeous 16mm lensing, by Ed Rutherford, clings to moments of oddly surreal clarity — wisps of fog float by too distinctly, too quickly to feel entirely natural — even as the tactile beauty of it all convinces us otherwise, that it’s all real, that perhaps even ghosts are real, too. The sound design hems us into this world, surrounding and overwhelming every image, so thoroughly that we cannot help but wonder if hers isn’t merely a hypervigilant mind playing tricks on itself. (The Turn of the Screw comes immediately and inescapably to mind.) And these are just the odd, offhand touches disturbing the margins of this story. Watching The Eternal Daughter attentively may make you feel like you’re in fact watching the movie that resulted from Julie’s hotel stay with her mother, the one she’s been working on this whole time. Only you’re seeing it superimposed onto the actual events, the actual trip, the actual memory. Julie is reliving something, not living it. Is she not? The Eternal Daughter makes a case for filmmaking as a way to satisfy that desire to remember and relive.
Who better to star in a project like this than an actor whose grasp on reality is just as convincing as her playfully self-aware hand at artifice? A talent for toeing that boundary has been clear since the start of Tilda Swinton’s career, for example in her startling collaborations with figures like Derek Jarman, which remain among her most piercing work. It is not enough to say that she carries this new movie. She is the movie. Through her, the project closes the gap between reality and its other. As both Julie and Rosalind, she could not be more of a pleasure to watch; Julie’s gentle neuroticism, Rosalind’s closed-door inner life — there is much for an actor of this caliber to chew on.
This is no mere parlor trick, however. Makeup and clothing distinguish Julie and her mother, and changes to Swinton’s voice (deeper and breathier and more patient for Rosalind) further set them apart. But what really divides them is the emotional world Swinton has developed for them each. They are not just mother and daughter, but something larger, even archetypal. The mother — loving but withholding, unsentimental but not cold — and the daughter, clawing at the limits of such sturdiness, frustrated and devoted, needy and in the dark. Julie, in particular, speaks to something primal. Some universal need. The Eternal Daughter draws this out of her through a long process of self-deception. Hogg’s style is deceptively simple when it comes to filming scenes of Tilda and Tilda together, leaning back on the basics of shot/reverse shot, one person onscreen and then the other, rather than using digital magic to graft them into the same frame at the same time. In that simplicity, however, lies the whole, bold idea: The division — visual, physical, psychic — between these women, one that Julie feels very much. The Eternal Daughter is about Julie’s attempts to scrape away at that limit, to reach the other side. To reach, in effect, this other part of herself. The film’s genius is in how far Hogg allows her to go. Its poignancy is in the fact that there will always be a limit.