At the beginning of The Lost Daughter, Leda, the heroine of the film played by Olivia Colman, meets a pregnant woman up to her neck. “You will see”she told him, with a slightly compassionate smile. “Children are an overwhelming responsibility”. These simple words, in Leda’s mouth, echoed like gunshots.
We do not know what relationship the latter has with her own daughters, or why she seems to harbor a certain guilt towards them. What is obvious is that her experience of motherhood is at best ambivalent, at worst riddled with resentment.
The Lost Daughter, available on Netflix from December 31, shows characters that we rarely see on screen: mothers “against nature”, to use another expression of the heroine. They love their children, but are suffocated by motherhood and the sacrifices it imposes.
This is a daring first achievement for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who as an actress and producer has never been afraid of taboo subjects: among her best roles, a tortured secretary in the middle of BDSM exploration (The Secretary), or a feminist prostitute in the series The Deuce by David Simon.
For this first feature film, the filmmaker brilliantly captures a novel by Elena Ferrante, Stolen doll, published in 2009. Even more poisonous and cutting edge than the book, the adaptation of Maggie Gyllenhaal, awarded to the Venice Film Festival by the prize for best screenplay, offers a frank and sometimes not very shining portrait of motherhood.
Alone with people around
The Lost Daughter follows the enigmatic Leda (Olivia Colman), a 48-year-old teacher who came to spend a few weeks on vacation on a Greek island. She is unfriendly, fierce, sometimes insolent. There is something disturbing about his relationship with others, but we don’t really know what. Perhaps she is hiding a heavy secret. Or maybe it’s just rare to see a woman who seems to exist only for herself.
Soon after arriving, his attention is drawn to a noisy and intrusive family of Americans, who disturb his peace on the beach. However, whether on the sand, in a restaurant, or at the cinema, Leda protects her tranquility as if she had been deprived of it for too long.
The vacationer becomes particularly fascinated by Nina (Dakota Johnson), a beautiful young woman constantly monopolized by Elena, her young daughter. If you get lost in the first names, it’s normal: the characters too, and the sound echoes between Elena, Leda, Nina, or even the doll, Mina, only emphasize the parallels between their trajectories. Moreover, the “lost girl” of the title could be any of these characters, because all of them play in turn the role of mother and child, protector and protected.
Soon, a mutual interest mingled with suspicion develops between Leda and Nina, as the film, using flashbacks, sheds light on Leda’s youth, and her relationship with her own daughters. Incarnated in these scenes by the magnetic Jessie Buckley, we discover her in her twenties, still a student and already the mother of two children. She is exhausted by her responsibilities, can no longer study, sleep, or even masturbate quietly, and his tension is barely contained.
It would be a shame to reveal too much in the rest of the film, which operates by slow combustion and distils throughout a subtly threatening atmosphere (a pine cone smashing on Leda’s back, an intrusive insect that disturbs her sleep) . What we can say is that it abuses the classic injunctions and representations of motherhood: here, no maternal instinct or sacrificial mothers, but women who lose patience, do not want to play, or admit that they hate talking to their children on the phone.
This does not make them “bad mothers”, just women unable to achieve the ideal that has been sold to them. Fathers of The Lost Daughter are all characterized by their nonchalant absence, but Leda or Nina are expected to be entirely devoted to their offspring, with no regard for any privacy or personal ambition. Callie, the pregnant woman from the beginning of the film, has no children yet, but fully subscribes to these injunctions: her first presumption when she meets Leda is that her daughters “Must miss him”.
If the anger of the heroines of The Lost Daughter is so subversive, it’s because the pressure to want to give birth is instilled in us from an early age, when we start, for example, to play with dolls. This toy, which offers a simplified version of motherhood, is the object of all envy among the female characters of the film – women or children. Leda’s sometimes petulant attitude reminds us: just because you become a mother doesn’t mean you stop being a girl.
With remarkable confidence, Maggie Gyllenhaal shows these women in all their dimensions (cold, maternal, immature, attractive, complexed, petty, generous) and breaks the dichotomy “mother or whore”. Its actresses, filmed by the talented director of photography Hélène Louvart, deliver three of the best performances of the year.
The film also resists the temptation to explain or repair its heroines, to present their inconvenient motherhood as an obstacle to overcome. At one point, Nina asks Leda if the alienation she has felt since the birth of her daughter will ever pass. The answer is furtive, but deserves our attention – like the film, if not reassuring, it is at least honest.