Monday, January 10, 2022

The Lost Daughter, and Notes on Novice Directors

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter.

When first-rate actors turn into directors, one thing you can usually count on is the quality of the performances. Rebecca Hall’s work with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing is so finely tuned and so subtle that it feels almost preconscious, as if Hall kept catching the two women in the moments before their identification with their characters had translated into action. That description makes it sound as if the actresses weren’t actually engaged in the process of acting, because any good teacher will tell you that acting is action, and when actors don’t play an action (otherwise known as an objective) what they generally wind up producing is a wash of generalized emotion. (That’s what’s happened to Kate Winslet’s work over the last ten years.) But Thompson and Negga aren’t generalizing; they’re so deeply engrained in their characters that it’s as if Hall were simply on their wavelength, recording their process – except, of course, there’s nothing simple about pulling that off. I sometimes had that experience watching the actresses in Ingmar Bergman’s movies (including some of the bad movies) – the sense that the relationship between them and the director was as intimate as the one between a great photographer and his or her subject. The comparison seems especially apt in the case of Passing, which has the feel of black-and-white photographs from the twenties and thirties – and that may be the reason the movie makes some viewers impatient or bored. It’s a piece of experimental filmmaking in which the novice director is striving to get on the screen states of being that haven’t been dramatized before. 

Like Hall with Passing, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her debut as both a screenwriter and a director with The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of a short novel by Elena Ferrante set on a Greek island where the protagonist, Leda (played by Olivia Colman), is a middle-aged English academic on vacation who interacts with an American family she meets on the beach. Gyllenhaal’s strong suit is certainly her work with the actors – Dakota Johnson as Nina, an unhappy young wife with a difficult small daughter; Paul Mescal as the beach boy she has an affair with while her husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is away; Ed Harris as the hotel owner; and especially Colman and Jessie Buckley, who plays Leda as a younger woman in flashbacks. Also Peter Sarsgaard, who fleshes out a cameo as a distinguished young professor who becomes the young Leda’s lover when they meet at a conference. Unlike Hall, Gyllenhaal isn’t working experimentally, but it’s impressive that she can sustain ensemble work of such a high caliber.

The problem with the movie is everything besides the acting. Gyllenhaal doesn’t understand about editing rhythms or what to do with the camera, and the material is hopeless. I gave up on the book after twenty pages or so; I find Ferrante’s prose chilly and dull, at least in translation from the Italian. (I didn’t fare much better with My Brilliant Friend, though I held on for longer.) So I can’t swear to it that the problem with Gyllenhaal’s screenplay is the book itself, though after the movie’s opaque ending I went back to the novel and checked the last few pages, and the adaptation is very faithful. Here’s the premise. As Leda observes Nina’s discomfort with her little girl, her tension with her husband and her liaison with affable, sensitive Will, she remembers her own failures as a mother – that she found motherhood a burden and escaped from it when, after her long-distance relationship with the professor broke up her marriage, she left her two young daughters with her husband for a few years and feels that she has never been able to compensate them for the lost time. She’s drawn into Nina’s life when the little girl is lost on the beach, and Leda finds her and brings her back to her parents and her aunt (Dagmara Dominczyk). But the child has dropped her doll, and she’s inconsolable without it; she cries and howls and can’t sleep at night. Leda knows exactly what happened to the doll. She found it near the water and took it back to her hotel room, and she holds onto it for days, even after Nina befriends her and even asks Leda to lend her and Will her room so they can make love. You get the symbolic significance of the doll, God knows, but its realistic significance is another question. Since we’re not supposed to think that Leda is sadistic, you don’t believe for a minute that she wouldn’t just return the damn doll – and when she finally does, the act is as unmotivated as her stealing it, so you don’t believe that either.

In the movie’s most bizarre scene, Lyle, the hotel owner, who is attracted to Leda, visits her in her room. She’s left the doll on a table on her balcony, so we think, What’s going to happen if Lyle catches sight of it? Is she going to figure out how to hide it before he does? As it turns out, those conventional questions are too bourgeois for this movie’s late-sixties/early-seventies-ish arthouse sensibility. Leda makes no effort to get rid of the evidence of her theft and the anguish she’s put her friend’s child through. Lyle, wandering out onto the balcony, sees it plainly and, though he certainly must know that a little girl staying at his hotel has been mourning its loss, he makes no comment and doesn’t do anything to rectify the situation. What could Gyllenhaal have been thinking?

Considering the writing makes it harder and harder for us to care about Leda, Colman does a remarkable job of conveying the irresistible nature of her character’s impulses (even though they’re perplexing to us). And the relationship between her performance and that of Jessie Buckley has an uncanny plausibility, like the one between Judi Dench as the aging Iris Murdoch, struggling with dementia, and Kate Winslet as her younger, glitteringly bright self in the twenty-year-old film Iris. Presenting the rawness of young Leda’s feelings – that she can only manage to be the mother she wants to be in dribs and drabs, that her husband (Jack Farthing) is getting the intellectual freedom she desires for herself, that the erotic satisfaction Sarsgaard’s Professor Hardy proffers is inseparable from the way his professional attention tantalizes her with the promise of a world that has been denied to her – Buckley is as vivid as she was as the aspiring country singer in Wild Rose. She might be the most staggeringly talented young actress currently making movies.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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