' ' Cinema Romantico: The Lost Daughter

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

The Lost Daughter

Based on an Elena Ferrante novel about a prickly academic named Leda Caruso taking a working vacation on a Greek island, “The Lost Daughter” does not necessarily sound like a vehicle for suspense. Whether or not the book was suspenseful, I don't know, having never read it, but either way, Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, renders some of the most effective and unlikely cinematic suspense I can recall. She utilizes narrative, like opening with the ending, establishing a question we wait two hours to have answered, and improbable plot details, like a child’s doll that Leda (Olivia Colman) cruelly and, seemingly, inexplicably pilfers, nothing less than a metaphorical bomb that just hangs around and hangs around, waiting to go off. Gyllenhaal utilizes character too, not just in flashbacks to Leda’s life as a new mother but in Colman’s performance, the most tension-filled element of the whole movie, an actor encouraged by a director to never let you feel comfortable for long. Even when Leda is simply asking for ice pops, Colman gives it the indelible ring of someone who might just have acid for blood. 

Gyllenhaal immediately sets the edgy mood. Putting the camera in the passenger seat of her rental car as Leda negotiates the twisty turns of an island road, Gyllenhaal is content to keep the character framed in close-up, teasing the spectacular scenery just beyond but never letting us get a thorough glimpse of it, quasi-intimacy tactfully inducing apprehensiveness. And even when Gyllenhaal does finally go wide with her camera after Leda reaches her rental destination, it’s as much to underscore the character’s loneliness as it is to breathe in the surroundings. Such uncomfortable close-ups are not just limited to Leda. In a later beachside conversation with an expectant mother, Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), the camera’s proximity engenders tension from this ostensible peace talk even more than tension in Leda’s unexpectedly cutting last remark.

Callie is part of a large clan that noisily invades the beach where Leda spends her afternoons. Callie asks if Leda will give up her chair and umbrella to make space so their whole family can be together. Even before Leda refuses, we sense not just her stubbornness but her burgeoning suspicion – a dislike – of these interlopers. We grasp this through nothing more than Colman’s facial expressions and Gyllenhaal’s attendant point-of-view shots, cluing us into what Leda is looking at and how she feels about it, warily frowning as she watches this vacationing family go about its business. Indeed, “The Lost Daughter” might be based on a book but Gyllenhaal has tellingly chosen not to evoke Leda’s interior life through narration, or even monologues, just shot selection, editing, and acting. The most crucial relationship, in fact, between Leda and Callie’s sister-in-law and new mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), is almost strictly carved out of the way in which Leda watches Nina behave around her daughter and the looks that Leda and Nina share across the beach. Simply in alternating close-ups of Johnson’s narrowed, curious eyes and Colman’s empathetic anguish, an unspoken understanding settles that one parent is silently communicating to another the shared experience of child-rearing pain. 

These silent encounters trigger flashbacks to Leda’s past, where Jessie Buckley takes over as a younger version of the character, at first glimpses before gradually growing longer and more illuminating, watching Leda herself as a new mother navigating an academic career and two young daughters. And though “The Lost Daughter” is careful to portray young Leda as not being entirely negligent in her child-raising duty, Buckley’s air in a scene where her character guides a babysitter through a protracted list of caretaking essentials betraying love rather than exasperation, both the movie and Buckley’s performance also convey an exhaustion if not an outright resentment at having her time monopolized. That her husband is barely present in these scenes feels less like a script oversight than an underlining of the burden falling directly on her shoulders, one with which she struggles to cope. And when she has an affair with a celebrated professor (Peter Sarsgaard) at a conference, it, too, is less about him than what he represents – that is, these sequences kind of incredibly demonstrate how exercising your intellect can be sexual. 

One flashback scene shows Leda becoming incensed when her daughter defaces a doll, taking the toy and hurling out the window. In this way, when the present version of Leda finds the doll that Nina’s daughter has lost and keeps it for herself, even as Nina and her family scour the beach looking for it, this functions as an emblem of trying to heal the myriad wounds of her past, further evoked in a shot of her clutching the doll as she naps on the couch. It might also just denote that she’s gone around the bend. There are tremors on the periphery of Colman’s performance suggesting she might not be wholly with it, her cutting a rug on the dance floor not suggesting the sort of release such scenes usually do but something nearly manic. And when the narrative bomb of the doll finally goes off, it’s not in service of suturing the wound but opening it all the way up, figuratively as much as literally. Leda seems to suffer a break in this moment, washed up on the shore of her maternal failure and regret, as dark a joke as I could ever imagine about raising children being no day at the beach. 

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