With The Lost Daughter, director Maggie Gyllenhaal gives unique spin to well-known tropes of art cinema narratives

The influences of filmmaking greats like Asghar Farhadi and Ingmar Bergman are quite evident in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut on Netflix, starring Olivia Colman.

Indranil Bhattacharya January 04, 2022 11:25:28 IST
With The Lost Daughter, director Maggie Gyllenhaal gives unique spin to well-known tropes of art cinema narratives

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

In a crucial scene in The Lost Daughter, the protagonist Leda (Olivia Colman) tells a young man she had befriended “my mother was very beautiful… I felt she hadn’t shared it. Like in creating me, she had separated herself, like pushing a plate away if the food’s repulsive.”

Motherhood, both in its endearing as well as disenchanting forms, is at the centre of the complex and highly nuanced narrative in prominent actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. The film is an adaptation of a 2006 Italian novel of the same name by a highly celebrated author who writes anonymously under the pen name Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s narratives about women’s experiences in 20th-century Italy, especially motherhood, sexual desire, male violence, and class barriers, have resonated with readers outside Italy too. Ann Goldstein, who translates Ferrante’s novels into English, has become an institution herself. 

In the cinematic adaptation of Ferrante’s novel, the background is changed from the Ionian coast in Italy to an island in Greece. Leda, a literary scholar and a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, arrives at a fictional island called Kyopeli to spend a leisurely Summer break. Presumably single and having grown-up children, Leda is free from social handicaps which constrain women of her age. Set in her ways, Leda seems to be ill-prepared for what she was to encounter on this holiday. Her patience and civility are tested when a noisy and assertive American family with local roots invade Leda’s private idyll. Sound of foghorns from ships, an annoying light beam from a nearby lighthouse, offensive young locals, indiscreet caretakers – there are too many unwelcome elements in this sun-kissed paradise. As a foreigner and a single woman, Leda is also a subject of a pervasive gaze, as well as unexplained hostility, especially from the shady American family.

With The Lost Daughter director Maggie Gyllenhaal gives unique spin to wellknown tropes of art cinema narratives

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

But not everyone in the family is hostile. Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother with a little daughter Elena (Athena Martin), exude warmth. Watching Nina with her daughter triggers, almost in a Proustian way, bittersweet memories of Leda’s own life as a young mother. Floodgates open, and images and sounds from the past rush in. We witness young Leda’s passionate encounter with an older academic Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard), an episode that leads her to seek a radical change in her life. Leda’s desertion of her children for three long years, and her separation of their father, are parts of that troubling past. 

There is a degree of ambivalence in the narrative as to why Leda hides a doll that the little child Elena is attached to. Leda, of course, explains it as another of her “bad mother” act. 

Gyllenhaal deploys some well-known tropes in art cinema narratives but gives them her own unique spin. For example, the thriller-like narration is reminiscent of the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Leda’s clandestine intervention in the lives of Nina and her daughter has a quirkiness about it. Most of the narrative hinges on how and when this act will get revealed. Suspense in this film is used more as a formal device, to reveal concealed truths, anxieties, and societal divisions. Like Farhadi (About Elly, 2009; The Separation, 2011), Gyllenhaal uses a disappearance and a crime which, although, superficially trivial, has potentially explosive consequences.

One also notices a thematic resemblance, albeit a limited one, to Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, which deals with guilt, the wasted possibilities of youth, the enigmatic nature of human memory. Like Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries, Leda’s journey into the unfamiliar, and a chance encounter, triggers uncomfortable memories. The Lost Daughter, too, moves between the past and present but focuses more on the dramatic and the intimate, rather than delving into the metaphysical and humanist concerns one associate with the Bergman masterpiece. 

Gyllenhaal, along with her main collaborators – the highly experienced cinematographer Hélène Louvart and the editor Affonso Gonçalves – have managed to create a highly integrated aesthetic experience. Most of the dramatic moments unfold through lightly shaky handheld, tightly-framed shots that focus on human drama, and avoid revealing the beauty of the location. The temporal-spatial break within the film is effectively mapped in Louvart’s affective lighting schema – predominantly warm tones of the Grecian summer for the present, and the intimate coolness of a North American winter for the past. Moving from one to the other feels organic and not jarring, as the tonal differences are kept minimal.

Bringing together past and present through intercutting is a standard narratorial and editorial technique. In The Lost Daughter, this intercutting is both unique and helps in braiding together the two strands of time. Rather than cutting symmetrically between past and present, the editing adopts an interesting asymmetry. The intense scenes from the present intercut with flashes from the past, and long scenes from the past are punctuated by fleeting visuals from the temporal present. Affonso sometimes cuts between tightly framed shots of past and present in a way that these transitions elude our eye. In other instances, these transitions are more direct, giving the viewer an impression some scenes from the past are coloured by Leda’s memory, while others are objective renditions of a lapsed reality. 

Thinking actors, when they don the director’s hat, often manage to create compelling cinema. Gyllenhaal’s success in this film, too, comes from her intimate understanding of the actors’ minds, and organising the film around it. The script probably evolved, at least in its later stages, with Olivia Colman in mind. Colman’s middle-aged body, her 'Englishness,' her history of playing strong women on screen, cumulatively feeds into The Lost Daughter. Gyllenhaal’s choice of her main actor cements the fact that a script to visualisation is not always a one-way street. Given what she has accomplished in her first film, we can look forward to more exciting work from her in the future. 

The Lost Daughter is streaming on Netflix.

Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is an academic and a researcher. He teaches cinema in film schools and universities, and writes occasional articles and reviews for web portals and magazines. He holds a PhD from the University of Westminster, London, United Kingdom.

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