Celebrated British director Joanna Hogg is back on the Venice Lido with The Eternal Daughter, a film shot in secret in lockdown and starring The Souvenir’s Tilda Swinton in dual roles as a mother and daughter heading to a hotel in the countryside for a much-needed birthday vacation.
“And soon it was trees and dark, my brothers, with real country dark,” says Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. It could also have been the first line of Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter screenplay. It is “real country dark” when a mother and daughter (Swinton) arrive with their dog Louis at a a countryside hotel in the middle of the night. Nothing seems to be quite right.
The place is deserted except for them and the surly receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) who harrumphs at pretty much all of the daughter’s requests. Having seen to Louis’ needs, mother and daughter settle amiably into their twin beds, but things go bump in the night and the daughter cannot rest. During the day she tries to work, writing her new film, but she is also surreptitiously recording her mother as she recalls her childhood in the stately home which the hotel used to be.
Their days slip into a routine as the mother has her bath and walk, and the daughter continues her work. They dine in the evening on the limited menu and the receptionist with the clumpiest shoes – she represents the working-class – serves them, before speeding off with her boyfriend in a car pounding to techno music. The conversations are for the most part held in the golly-gosh upper-middle-class dialect that Hogg effortlessly produces, but the deeper dialogues relate to the memories the house holds, and the ghosts of those passed.
Beginning with all the furniture and fog of a classic ghost story, The Eternal Daughter ultimately doesn’t commit and soon it becomes apparent that there is no real danger in the house. It might not be the most scary, but The Eternal Daughter is one the creakiest film ever made. The sound of the old house settling is conveyed through a sound design that feels like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop have been working overtime on weathered wood.
This soundscape is further augmented by a night watchman (Joseph Mydell), who plays a mournfully eerie flute as a way of passing the time since his wife died. Surprisingly, no one suggests that maybe he shouldn’t. Swinton is superb in both roles and there’s refreshing simplicity to the way her double personas are played. Hogg simply keeps the characters in separate shots. There are no cheats, no over the shoulder shots, or long shots. They occupy different spaces and, in doing so, perhaps different realities. The moment they finally share a shot proves pivotal, like someone has brought matter and anti-matter together, crossing the Tilda beams.
The Eternal Daughter is very much a minor film for Hogg: a small chamber piece which could be watched as amusing marginalia to The Souvenir diptych. It’s a hangout film for those among you who can’t get enough Tilda Swinton and an incredibly cute dog, and as such it works. It doesn’t really have anything to say, and the meta-ness feels a little tired. It’s cosy, inoffensive and, at less than ninety minutes, satisfyingly short, but sadly doesn’t have a particularly strong argument for its own existence.
The 79th Venice Film Festival takes place from 31 August-10 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty