Issue #61: Mothers & Daughters🪞
The Lost Daughter + Last Night In Soho
I know, it feels like you just saw us right? Well, we’re back already — hot off our Sundance Film Festival screenings and coming at you with some thoughts on the maternal image. First up, we’ve got Cate on The Lost Daughter, talking about how its narrative breaks maternal taboos. Then there’s Zosha on Last Night in Soho and all its missed opportunities. Read on, movie yell, and do subscribe if a link brought you here, won’t you?
Cate on The Lost Daughter
"I'm an unnatural mother."
It’s a strange taboo to admit out loud, far less to directly to another woman with children. But it’s precisely what Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) does when confronted with her own judgement. In The Lost Daughter — Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, one woman reckons with her past, her choices and her own relationship to motherhood.
Alone on holiday in Greece, Leda is taken by the imagined plight of Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young, fussy daughter, seeing in them a life she once left behind. The women’s lives collide when Nina’s daughter briefly goes missing, and Leda is the one to find her. As the story unfolds, we learn that Leda, a professor of Italian comparative literature, left her two daughters for three years when they were young, and only came back when she properly missed them.
That truth — a critical key to her personhood — is a fact that Nina draws out of her on a short shopping excursion. And Leda’s teary-eyed confession betrays her inner conflict. She left her family to pursue her career, and it felt amazing. But the guilt of not feeling guilt seems to haunt her. She knows these aren’t the right answers to these questions.
Nina is overwhelmed and exhausted by the constant needs of her child. With an inattentive husband and withering patience, she’s also carrying on with Will (Paul Mescal) an assistant at the resort they’re all staying at. And in her, Leda sees a woman who is struggling with motherhood the way she did. To her, Nina’s depressive malingering is a welcome reprieve. Leda isn’t broken for having felt the same. But her desire for familiarity and connection make her reckless, and she vindictively steals a doll from Nina’s young child knowing full well that it means more tantrums for her to deal with.
In flashbacks throughout the film, we unfold Leda’s past as a young mother with two small girls. As she juggles the work of academia with parenting and a partner who dismisses her languishing depression, it becomes clear that children may have been a regretful choice for her. Young Leda (Jessie Buckley) loves her daughters. And when she’s happy and energized, she dotes on them adoringly. But Leda is also serious about her work, and resents the supposition that childcare should be her burden alone. She ignores her crying children while working on a translation until her husband pesters her to attend to them. She sets her older daughter in a room on her own as punishment for playfully slapping her, then breaks the glass panes in the door as she slams it in retreat.
Leda seems to understand that her patience is too thin and her reactions too harsh to deal with children, but she cannot seem to rein them in. Her kids are a part of her, but they are also a nuisance. They deter her from the real purpose she’s set out for herself. They take too much from her, and demand too much attention. She cannot have a moment of peace. Children do not understand the vagaries of adult responsibilities and they shouldn’t have to. But it doesn’t undo the weight of their constant and unending need. Leda is suffocated by it, and desperate to find a way out.
Like Nina, Leda has an affair. But hers is with a fellow professor who praises her work. The experience and thrill of mutual professional recognition seems to enliven her. Their tryst at a conference is the most vibrant she’s been in months. But when she admits to him that she hates talking to her children on the phone, her lover chastises her for saying so. Not even in the confines of an already illicit affair is it safe to admit her true feelings. She’s smothered by the expectations and performance of motherhood. Not once is she allowed to simply admit that it doesn’t suit her.
Gyllenhaal — who also wrote the film — makes light work of this seething internal conflict. Her instincts are right on the money, filling the film with medium shots that place Leda alone in the frame, in stark contrast to Nina’s sprawling family. Colman and Buckley, working through time, create a seamless performance of a woman at the end of her rope with no one to ask for help. Buckley makes Leda filled with frustration and resentment, while Colman brings forth the shuddering truth of Leda’s own inept decisions. In her hands she is alone and possibly lonely, but reluctant to make new connections. Intimacy brings expectation. And expectation brings obligation. She won’t fall into that trap again.
The film is brilliant at parsing the dual sin of reluctant motherhood. In The Lost Daughter, love is not unconditional, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And the unspoken gaffe of admitting to the distance between those two states is where the conflict — both internal and external — can be found. Gyllenhaal’s debut film is a gorgeous, well-studied look at the psychology of one of the few remaining cultural taboos. And it shines by refusing to ever look away, even when the truth curdles into an ugly shame to be hidden from view.
Zosha on Last Night In Soho
About a sixth of the way through Last Night in Soho, the latest film offering from Edgar Wright, my best friend leaned over to me and said “Is that Olenna Tyrell?” I quickly shot back at him, before I could even comprehend what he had asked or why I had answered: “No, that’s definitely not.” Lost to me in the snap second reaction was so many things — like the fact that Rigg had died more than a year before we were seeing this movie; that her kind, round face felt swallowed by the years her character seemed to have already lived; that her final performance would come to us via such a middling movie.
Last Night in Soho is exactly the kind of movie you want to be watching, right up to the point you don’t. We follow Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a young girl obsessed with the swinging ‘60s, as she attempts to move from her small town to London to attend a fashion design program. Quickly, she finds herself not only sucked into some strange dreams where she’s living the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, living up to the name), but slowly finds herself being subsumed by both the glamour and nostalgia of the city she once idolized. It is all promise and pizzazz: we know Ellie is sensitive (or at least primed) to see ghosts, like that of her mother. The era she’s inspired by has endless facets, fashions, and fun tunes. Rigg is her slightly cantankerous landlady, while Taylor-Joy is all breezy confidence as a wannabe ‘60s it girl. Wright’s penchant for intricate setpieces and grabby visuals seem tailor made for a project like this.
And indeed Soho snakes its story around those pillars until finally it’s choking out Ellie’s dreams as she once knew them — and, unfortunately, it takes the story with it. I am going to try not to spoil things for those who want an easy bad watch in their future (‘tis the season!), but suffice it to say, the third act ends up swallowing the substance of the film whole, wrecking any semblance of theme, message, or story in favor of pure flash. Plot holes abound, which wouldn’t be so insulting were it not for the way they pile up like birds on a telephone wire. As the mystery of Sandie’s fate and Ellie’s visions unwinds, Soho becomes less and less interested in delivering a coherent narrative than it does serving up ghoulish setpieces. The cleverness of Wright’s style — used to such great, variant effect in Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim — becomes so soaked in a need for heightened mania that it loses the thread.
And so we’re left with Ellie frantically chasing down answers as she’s haunted by one ghost after another. What starts as an otherworldly manifestation of the dark side of history becomes a stab at horror that’s neither particularly scary nor fun. Movies don’t need “messages,” but Last Night in Soho seems torn on how to stand and deliver anything at all; it clearly wants to leave its audience with a takeaway, but when “the reveal” plays out it’s not only confused, it's straight up turgid. What it aims for in feminist bonafides fall with a thunk, a reminder that pop culture doesn’t owe us politics and often can’t deliver.
I can feel this review vergining into negativity I didn’t feel in my chest when I watched it; I walked out of it with a group of close friends laughing about its many foibles, celebrating how grabby the first two-thirds or so felt. And yet, in the thriller game, you’re only as good as your ending, and it’s there Last Night in Soho succumbed to its worst impulses and sometimes boring visuals. To me, Last Night in Soho has the vibe of a man feeling out the interiority of a woman and falling so short of reality the whole world feels confined. The film’s ultimate soliloquy is mostly salvaged because it’s Rigg who’s tasked with detangling it for the audience, and how can you deny Rigg’s cool, self-assuredness, equal parts acerbic and old dame? That was the scene that I finally recognized Rigg, her steely brown eyes peering out from her round face, her delivery enrapturing me and anchoring the whole scene around her. It’s a pity that the film couldn’t live up to her standards, the final performance we’ll get from a storied career.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: It’s very hard to make friends now, time to bring back shame, navigating the end of the world, where hip-hop and architecture intersect, yellowjackets and survival, what Anna Marie Tendler’s been up to, the many faces of Kirsten Dunst, zoomers love the 80s but millennials are all about Y2K fashion, all the villains are techbros, the best films of 2021, in defense (?) of Jeremy Strong, the secret shame of The Lost Daughter, and Jesus will accept this rose.
ZOSHA: To the (streaming) buffet! What it’s like to work in palliative care at this moment. Back alley advice is making the pandemic worse. No Way Home answers the ultimate Peter Parker question. It’s almost like praying. We don’t need the Joss Whedon cover story. A world where everyone’s the underdog. How do you solve a problem like Boba Fett?
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