Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 03, 2022 11:32 pm 
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Un unnatural mother

Maggie Gyllkenhaal has made a striking debut as a director, which has been greeted with raves. It's not a total success but its strangeness may be its main appeal, and, logically for an actress-director, its good cast, led by Olivia Coleman. You love her or you don't, and if you don't it's tough because she dominates this picture (along with a younger version of herself played by Irish actress Jessie Buckley). This is a woman's picture, focused on a woman, by a woman, very freely adapted from a novel by the mysterious female-centric Italian woman writer, Elena Ferrante, which will attract her many female fans. (Gyllenhaal wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Ferrante.) ​ This is a fiercely accomplished film, but it lays everything on just a bit too heavy, sometimes it's so over-the-top it made me talk back to the screen. Or seemed like a parody.

At first this seems a film about nothing. And about a woman alone on a vacation on a Greek Island inhabited by English speaking people. At the beach every day Leda (Coleman), a "professor," she tells someone, seems to do nothing but watch the groupings of other people while she sits alone. She is bothered by them; she'd rather be alone, but they're there to intrude on her privacy. As punishment when she finds a lost child for them she withholds the child's doll, and keeps it hidden, a quiet act of spite and inexplicable meanness. (There is an explanation finally, a neurotic one.) As this indicates, Leda is an unappealing heroine. We learn through many flashbacks to sympathize with the complexity and difficulty of her motherhood many years ago. These show her two wild, ungovernable daughters. Now they are 23 and 25 years old, and somewhere else. So it seems the difficulty, almost impossibility of childrearing, is the subject, since a stolen doll is a trifling theme that highlights Leda's failure to interact with anybody, except briefly.

Gyllenhaal has chosen a literary subject - it doesn't altogether work in a feature film but impresses us as unusual for its poignant little torments, a bowl of fruit that is rotten underneath, a large buzzing cicada on a bed pillow at night, a fallen pinecone, over-solicitous others, a hostile younger female guest, the over-friendly hotel caretaker (Ed Harris). The camera indulges in many closeups, which are effective but obtrusive, making a conversation seem like a tennis match, an unruly group of young men like a tornado.

With her focus on details and the awkwardness of Leda's situation - one might like her to get involved with a member or members of the opposite sex like Gaspard in Éric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale. Leda does engage with several men, a young Irish guy, Will (Paul Mescal), and the older caretaker, Lyle (Ed Harris). But Leda's main involvement seems to be with her younger self, in flashback. The Ferrante novel doesn't provide us with the foreground action that a film needs. In a sense Gyllenhaal makes this into a thriller about nothing.

Yet it's still a thriller, whose tension is well maintained from the early minutes, thanks to Coleman's grab-bag of contrasting expressions and the film's expressionistic style, the jumping-in-and-out flashbacks, the many closeups. Eventually, we get a lot about the young Leda. An ambitious comparative literature scholar and translator, she is prone to the influence of flirty or domineering male academics, embodied by Peter Sarsgaard (the director's husband) and Alexandros Mylonas. Sometimes young Leda's girls are fun, sometimes they're unbearably cloying and demanding, though the main thing they want is for young Leda to peel an orange "like a snake," in one long unbroken strip. This is a sign of how though the flashbacks provide important clues to this woman, in the present she remains an enigma - a rather repellant one, though it's hinted her present relationship to her now 23- and 25-year-old daughters is a warm and supportive one. Which is pretty confusing, since this woman seems decidedly unstable, in her own words "an unnatural mother."

Lacking a clear center, The Lost Daughter is memorable for the looming menace and disorder Gyllenhaal skillfully conveys in tableaux and crowd scenes. These rhyme suggestively with the foreground of female neuroticism in the young and middle-aged Leda and in Nina (Dakota Johnson), the mother whose little girl Leda finds and with whom Leda identifies.

I have not read Elena Ferrante's famous four-volume Neopolitan bildungsroman, and from the Italian Wikipedia summary of the source, the third novel, La figlia oscura, it's hard to tell if flashbacks play as great a role. The literalness of cinematic flashbacks compared to literary ones that are seen more quietly, "in the mind's eye," can make them over-obtrusive, the resulting film overly busy and phantasmagorical. But this is a film that is largely in its protagonist's head, and Gyllenhaal carries that off remarkably well.

The Lost Daughter, 121 mins., shown in 18 domestic and international festivals, starting with Venice and including New York. In limited US release in theaters Dec. 17, 2021 and moving to Netfilx Dec. 31. Metacritic rating 85%.

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