Pictured: Julie Hart (Tilda Swinton) presents a birthday cake to her mother Rosalind in the ghostly drama, 'The Eternal Daughter', an English film written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Still courtesy of A24 Films (US) / BBC Films and London Film Festival (UK)
The Eternal Daughter, English writer-director Joanna Hogg’s sixth feature, is the arthouse equivalent of a quota quickie. Single location, small cast, one member of whom doubles up, and a short running time. It has thematic connections to Hogg’s previous film, The Souvenir Part II, which examined a film student’s response to grief. That was a fiesta compared this latest work, which takes its time to reveal what viewers might perceive at an early point – I was alive to the possibility of the film’s eventual revelation from the first scene. There are some droll Hogg-isms (not a word but should be). However, general audiences will be bored. The film will have a hard time finding cinema distribution, its star, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton not exactly being a marquee name – a Marquise, on the other hand, not hard to imagine. That said, I don’t doubt its sincerity. Hogg is not a trifling director. This film means something.
I confess to being quite shocked by the banal opening sequence – Hogg embracing Hammer horror. I think her mood board passed to cinematographer Ed Rutherford didn’t have much on it: lengthy drive, fog, isolation, slow approach to an old country house, tilted angle. Rutherford does her proud. For the first time in a Hogg film, we aren’t entering an actual landscape, but a dream one, in short where The Souvenir Part II left off. Hogg makes films about the upper classes who are all about convention. This opening is very conventional.
This isn’t the first film Hogg has made about a family outside their domestic environment – her second feature, Archipelago, covered this. Of all modern English filmmakers, Hogg is uniquely interested in the relationship between characters and their immediate surroundings. Her characters don’t discover things in buildings but use their dislocation to settle themselves. One definition of drama is ‘put your characters up a tree, throw stones at them, watch them climb back down’. In Hogg’s film, the characters book their tickets to climb a tree and embrace the stones with enthusiasm.
Not for the first time in her career, Tilda Swinton, in her fourth collaboration with Hogg, plays two characters in a film: Rosalind, an elderly woman first seen in The Souvenir, and Rosalind’s daughter, Julie Hart, previously played by Honor Swinton Byrne, her real-life daughter. Swinton channels Honor’s performance in this film, but she is also channelling her director, for whom Julie Hart is a surrogate. This ‘hall of mirrors’ approach is initially intriguing, but Hogg isn’t interested in capitalising on it. The Eternal Daughter is a standalone film, with its own frame-of-reference.
As in many a horror film, there is a chirpy taxi driver (in this case played by August Joshi) who tells Julie about the old stately home, now a hotel, in particular, how there is a figure that appears in a window that scares people off. He, of course, doesn’t want to go anywhere near the place. We expect there to be some objection from the other passenger in the car, Rosalind, nestled in the backseat next to her beloved springer spaniel, Louis – the non-reaction shot is initially jarring – but she does not respond. This, for me, is the first clue that all is not what it seems. From then on, I watched for acknowledgements of Rosalind by hotel staff, whether one plate would be brought at supper or two. Had Rosalind been played by another actress, I might have been less attuned to this, but you don’t get a star to play two parts for no reason – there is always a value in the signifier.
We see Rosalind step out of the cab and make her way towards the hotel. Rosalind does not fuss. (Another signifier?) Julie checks in at reception and deals with an improbably busy receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies). The receptionist also doubles as serving staff, another hint that something is awry. The receptionist cannot initially find Julie’s booking – it is during this scene that we hear her name and register the connection to The Souvenir. ‘I made the booking several months ago,’ explains Julie. ‘Then I confirmed the booking last week.’ There is a clatter of keystrokes from the receptionist. ‘Here we are.’ Julie is aghast to discover they have been allocated a ground floor room. ‘It must be a first-floor room,’ she insists. The receptionist, as they say, is having none of it. Julie is observant. ‘Plenty of keys,’ she remarks, looking at the sets in cubby holes behind the receptionist. ‘We do have a first-floor room,’ the receptionist announces finally. ‘But you can only have it for one night.’ Julie is pleased. ‘Might we have it for one than one night?’ she asks. The receptionist is sceptical. She does however inform Julie that she has received a letter from Julie’s cousin. The receptionist hands it to her. This behaviour, in the age of email, is very 20th Century, but ordinarily refers to dinner invitations printed (or written) on gilt-edged paper. Julie has another question. ‘Does the room have wi-fi?’ ‘No,’ replies the receptionist, ‘but if you go to the top of the house, you can get a signal?’ ‘The top of the house,’ Julie repeats querulously. Finally, she informs the receptionist that they have a dinner reservation. ‘You were late. Kitchen’s closed,’ the receptionist informs her tersely. This is the film’s second most memorable sequence, bested only by the climactic dinner scene. We wait a long time for some bubbles. When Julie is shown the first-floor room – more of a suite, really - she accepts it without complaint. The receptionist then leaves. Julie looks out of the window and sighs. A marquee-like tent is blocking the view.
Watching the emphatic absence of drama, I found myself accessing my inner Catholic priest, absolving Hogg of uninteresting filmmaking. The building is quite splendid, though Rutherford and Hogg mute the tonal range. We are in the grey zone – and not just because of Rosalind.
We find out late in the film from Julie’s mobile phone that the action takes place in November. Julie’s desire to fill a water bottle with hot water makes sense, as does the absence of guests. The receptionist leaves soon after Julie checks in. We hear thumping bass music from the car that collects her, the first indication of modernism. Julie has a lot of things to put away as her mother speaks to her, including rolls of film for use in a still camera. This is in anticipation of the climax – Rosalind’s birthday, on the occasion of which Julie takes her photograph. ‘You have plenty of photographs of me,’ Rosalind will protest.
The absence of a kettle prompts Julie to search for a member of staff. As far as we can see, there is just the receptionist – and she has clocked off. Julie’s search takes her into a room, marked ‘staff only’. She proceeds into a space where vibrating machinery alarms her. There is alas no kettle. Lying in bed, her mother sound asleep, Julie hears creaking and moaning. This isn’t a quiet hotel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a draughty mansion that complains through the sounds that it makes.
In the morning, a tired Julie presents herself to the receptionist. She requests a kettle. ‘I’ll have one brought up,’ the receptionist replies. ‘Can we keep the room?’ Julie asks. The receptionist isn’t sure. ‘Can you get someone to check the windows above us? I mean, the empty rooms. The other guests can check theirs.’ The receptionist will do what she can. ‘So you’ll send up a kettle. We can keep the room. You’ll check the windows.’ It is a less of a confirmation and more of an order. Still, Julie’s authority wavers slightly. We never see a kettle being brought up. Julie’s next night is also disturbed.
Pictured: Watching the receptionist leave, Julie Hart (Tilda Swinton) stares from her hotel bedroom window in a scene from the English film, 'The Eternal Daughter', written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Still courtesy of A24 Films (US) / BBC Films and London Film Festival (UK)
During the second night, Louis demands to be taken out, whining and whimpering. Putting clothes over her pyjamas, Julie obliges. Hogg seems uniquely interested in the nuances of hotel behaviour – that Julie wouldn’t remove her pyjamas before dressing herself. Julie is led by Louis onto the lawn. ‘Well you brought me here. You don’t want to pee?’ Julie remarks in an exasperated manner. Her attention is drawn to the wing of the hotel and a window. The window is dark. There is no curtain. It is a window Julie will return to later.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the family’s relationship to the hotel. The inference is that Rosalind’s family once owned it. She certainly stayed there in the 1940s during the war. Visiting a place that your family once owned has a peculiar nostalgia. The aristocracy were once defined by the grandeur of their estates. Now these are open to guests. Rosalind has childhood memories of Aunt Joss and of children ‘mucking about’, jumping on the sofa. She tells Julie that she is happy to be there. Much later, Julie will record her mother speaking on her phone – that’s when we clock the date. However, Hogg isn’t concerned by the legacy of aristocracy, being too much of an insider. She doesn’t want to unpick her own class.
Being a paying guest in what was once your family home means that one has a very different relationship with the service staff, one in which the staff rather than the guests wield some power. However, the receptionist’s status is undercut by her dependence on her boyfriend, who at one point threatens to drive off without her. Julie watches the drama through a window.
Louis improbably manages to let himself out of their room prompting Julie to search for him. She encounters the concierge, Bill (Joseph Mydell). Bill searches for Louis alongside Julie, calling out the dog’s name. Their search is unsuccessful. Julie returns to her room to discover Louis nestling next to her mistress. The mystery of his disappearance is never solved. Later Julie will discover Bill’s name and remark that her late father’s name is William.
Telegraphed early on, Julie’s cousin arrives. In another drama, this might lead to further exposition. However, Julie sends him away. During a nocturnal walk, Julie does indeed see a female figure in the ground floor window.
Each evening, Julie dines with her mother. They discuss the menu with interest. ‘We can have different things on different days,’ she explains to her mother, who is undecided about the starter and the main course. Julie opts for the soup. Their conversation is banal. She reads out the name of the dish and remarks that it sounds very nice. Other directors might omit such banality but Hogg foregrounds conversation between two people who have already said most of which they have to say to one another. I say ‘most’, but there is that climactic birthday meal. At one point, Rosalind is aggrieved to be without a fish knife. Then she remarks at the portion. ‘I can’t eat all that. You’ll have to eat it for me.’ ‘No,’ replies Julie, ‘look at mine. Just leave it,’ she tells her mother, finally.
There is a lot of deliberate repetition. The receptionist, doubling as a waitress, walks into a plastic bag by Rosalind’s feet as she sets down two dishes. ‘There’s a plastic bag by the chair,’ she remarks, as if it were somehow a deliberate mistake. ‘Yes,’ replies Julie. After the receptionist leaves each evening, Hogg shows the car disappear down the driveway until it leaves the frame. Hogg uses Béla Bartók’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’, also sampled by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, to underscore the action. The link to Kubrick’s film is deliberate – both films are about writers in remote hotels experiencing psychic trauma. It is not a spoiler to say that Julie doesn’t end up frozen in a maze. She does infrequently speak to her husband by phone, moving closer to bushes to get better reception.
Finally, there is the birthday dinner. Julie and Rosalind ponder their choices. ‘You know the menu by now,’ the receptionist remarks plaintively. Only Rosalind isn’t hungry. ‘I’ll watch you eat,’ she tells her daughter. ‘But I can’t eat if you don’t,’ Julie protests. It appears that neither will eat. ‘What about the cake?’ asks the receptionist. Julie stands up and walks with the receptionist away from her mother. The camera remains static, so the two women are shown in medium long shot. ‘You’re not supposed to mention the cake in front of her,’ she hisses. ‘OK, bring it in, and I’ll light the candle.’ The receptionist brings the cake in, but the candle is lit. Julie is incensed. Nevertheless, she sings ‘happy birthday’ to her mother. ‘I tried so hard to make you happy,’ she tells her, reflecting on not having children. Then there’s the revelation – one we expected all along.
Some viewers have found The Eternal Daughter incredibly moving and it’s not hard to see why. There is a shot – a flashback, a held hand – in which we understand completely why Julie is there. By the end of the film, Julie’s relationship with the receptionist is transformed. There is colour in the mise-en-scene. The greenery is rich. We can see the design on the wallpaper. We also see Julie typing a description of the setting.
The burst of colour at the end provides a rare moment of visual pleasure. Not enough to offset the pace and the soporific tone. Hogg is not the first filmmaker to examine the role of ritual in a godless world. We do however perceive her film as personal, a cry from the heart, an impossible attempt to complete a conversation.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, Central London, Friday 7 October 2022, 15:15 screening. Trailer not yet available.