Two women stand across from each other. They’re talking, yes, but the words aren’t important. They’re looking. They’re seeing each other and being seen. “The Lost Daughter” has several scenes like this, but it feels like a deluge. Despite the progress made by female storytellers in Hollywood in recent years, there are unfortunately few examples of films that are truly freed from the male gaze. “The Lost Daughter” is one of them.
Based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, “The Lost Daughter” tells the story of Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged literature professor whose blissful summer solitude in a small coastal town in southern Italy is disrupted; first by a loud, rambunctious family that invades the town, and then by a series of haunting memories that are brought to the surface by her escalating conflict with her interlopers. The family may be connected to organized crime, but that’s nothing compared to the threat from within.
It starts when she sees Nina (Dakota Johnson) struggling to control her toddler on the beach. Amidst the gaggle of wild Italians, they lock eyes early on and see themselves reflected back. Nina has no mothering instinct, and neither, we learn, did Leda. We flash back to her younger days, when she was married with two young daughters. Young Leda (Jessie Buckley) resents her children for taking her attention away from her work – she’s an academic with ambition – and as the flashbacks pile up, they build towards a character decision that subverts the most widely-held convictions about women and motherhood.
It’s profoundly challenging material for first-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal, but she has a firm grasp on the story and a remarkable acumen with the camera. She sees these women the way they see each other, keeping them in isolated close-ups so that their faces reveal the sharp memories poking at their placid demeanor like white-hot daggers. A handheld camera shakily trails behind them as they move through the beatific environment, projecting a harrowing instability. Beyond the aesthetic choices, Gyllenhaal also proves adept at handling the twin narratives. There is no predetermined rhythm to the shifts from the past to the present; the director simply stays with each one as long as she needs to, and you never feel as if you have lost your place in the story. It’s the work of a master storyteller.
That’s not to imply that “The Lost Daughter” is an easy watch. On the contrary, it’s one of the most uncomfortable films of the year, mostly for how fundamentally it resists our cultural expectations of how women behave. None of its characters are likeable in a conventional sense, nor do they seek our approval. Leda screams at children, her own and others. She steals. Even when she’s being kind, we question her motives. Gyllenhaal creates a space in which her actors can cast off the shackles of charisma and simply play these women as they are. It’s revelatory and more than a little unsettling.
Due to the valiant work from the film’s cast, however, your attention will never stray. Playing the same character at different life stages, Colman and Buckley may look nothing alike but they find the same nervous frequency, caught between their selfish instincts and society’s expectations. Unbridled and unappealing, they’re compelling to watch if only so you can figure out how to categorize them. Is Leda a sociopath, a narcissist, or just a truly liberated woman? Does she rage against the patriarchy or the walls she herself has constructed? The film doesn’t answer these questions. Instead it simply lays its characters bare, without moralizing, judging, or comparing. It puts the viewer in the unwelcome position of searching their own soul for a scrap of connection.
And yet its value to certain viewers will outweigh its disturbance to others. If you’re still reading this review and haven’t yet thrown down your newspaper in existential despair, “The Lost Daughter” might be just the film for you. Despite its late December release date, this isn’t a movie to take the family to on Christmas afternoon. It’s for those spending the holidays alone. It’s for those who know that Hell is other people not because they intrude upon our blissful solitude but for how they reflect the truth of who we are right back to our faces.
“The Lost Daughter” will be released in theaters on December 17 and on Netflix on December 31.