Red Sea International Film Festival 2021: The Lost Daughter Is The Mother Of All Stories

Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut straddles the non-existent line between cautionary tale and coming-of-age drama
Red Sea International Film Festival 2021: The Lost Daughter Is The Mother Of All Stories

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Writer: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard
Cinematographer: Helene Louvart
Editor: Affonso Goncalves

There's so much I want to say about The Lost Daughter. And yet, being a man, there's not much I really can say. Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut is a brave film. It relentlessly challenges our notions of not just storytelling but humanity too. It exists at the intersection of feminism and motherhood – a space that's too often treated as a sacred cow. This intersection may sound appealing on paper, rousing even, but the two are actually at odds with each other: The ambition of one cannot co-exist with the selflessness of the other. Self-love cannot share a room with unconditional love. 

I call the film brave not because it's a daring comment on society, but because it's a daring ode to individualism and isolation in an age where both have been reduced to mental health symptoms. The Lost Daughter conveys feelings that are not supposed to be felt and expressed, in a way that straddles the non-existent line between cautionary tale and coming-of-age drama. You feel sorry for the protagonist, and impressed by her at once. 

The film creates an illusion of calm before a storm. A 48-year-old British woman named Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) arrives at a Greek island for a long summer holiday. She is by herself; you can tell she's used to solitude rather than loneliness, because of how she self-reflexively mumbles when presented with new sights and sounds. She settles into a routine that includes sunbathing at the local beach. One morning, a loud Greek-American family monopolizes the stillness of her surroundings. Slowly but steadily, Leda gets lost in her observation of a hassled young mother (Dakota Johnson, as Nina) and her cranky little girl. Memories of her young adulthood come back to her in waves, when 23-year-old Leda (Jessie Buckley) – hopping on love and fresh air – struggled to balance the "crushing responsibility" of motherhood with the intellectual desire to evolve. 

In a world that often frames dysfunctional adults through the eyes of broken children, The Lost Daughter is oddly empowering; it has no qualms villainizing the children before they're old enough to be broken in order to spotlight the conflicts of a dysfunctional mother. Leda sees a lot of herself in Nina, but it's truer that she hopes to see more of herself in Nina. Most of all, she starts to confront the guilt of utter guiltlessness – and the identity of being an unnatural mother. For those who haven't read Elena Ferrante's book, including myself, watching The Lost Daughter is like watching a psychological anti-thriller, where every other moment counts on the fact that it isn't as sinister as it looks. That we expect something explosive – a kidnapping, a murder maybe – because of the island setting and unassuming-lady arc says more about us than the film: about how we're conditioned to view genre cinema as a ruse for ugly living, and about how the courage to be flawed is often hijacked by the fiction that accommodates it.

The film consciously fans the flames of our notions. For instance, when Nina's daughter goes missing on the beach, we immediately expect Leda to be behind it. When the girl's doll goes missing, we expect a twisted crime from a stifled mother. When Leda and Nina have mysterious conversations, we expect them to culminate in a "plot" or some kind of closure. When Leda takes a young student (Paul Mescal) out to dinner, we expect a forbidden tryst. When Leda mentions she's a professor of Italian literature on a break, we expect it to be untrue. When a few hostile islanders trouble Leda at a movie screening, we expect her to reveal her unhinged self. In a way, The Lost Daughter thrives on the art of anti-climax, resisting the weaponization of tone and treatment at every corner. 

It's perhaps no coincidence that Leda chooses the Greek island of Spetses. Spetses is not as popular as its more glamorous siblings, and played a key role in the 1821 War of 'Independence'. Behind the pretty beaches lies a complex history of struggle and freedom, one that Olivia Colman – who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest living actors – exudes through a beguiling performance. The rest of the cast is excellent too, especially Jessie Buckley as the younger Leda and, to an extent, Dakota Johnson in her trademark sultry-American-in-Europe role. But Colman toys with our sense of viewership, taking us to the brink before yanking us back into reality. 

Also Read: Red Sea International Film Festival: Notes from A New Dawn

Leda is a novelistic character, with so much hidden in between the lines and the creases of her smiles and frowns. Colman pushes the limits of Leda's social ambiguity, letting her sway between tenderness and eccentricity, invisibility and voyeurism. At no point is it possible to pigeonhole Leda as an introvert or just a sad and needy loner, simply because Colman understands how insanity is often a pronounced judgment of sanity. The film knows that she would make a solid psychopath, and therefore immerses us in the murky waters of foreshadowing. The camera trusts her to carry the unsaid and the not-to-be-said, which in turn allows Gyllenhaal's unsparing visual language to become an extension of the unsettled lead character. The tension of unravelling is palpable, but the tension of subverting – love, parenthood, guilt, ambition – is unbearable.

Eventually, The Lost Daughter is about a woman's shapeless quest for validation – and the price of swimming against a world that interprets parental sacrifice as the rhythm of civilization. It poses the question: What about those who lose the obligation to feel? It is a winning film disguised as a lost cause. After all, the title is evidence enough that a camera always cares for the innocence of infants. When they go missing, not many films have the nerve to admit that the adults looking for them are driven by the numbing shame of their own inadequacy. And even lesser films confess that some parents would rather find themselves before finding their children. 

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