'The Lost Daughter' shows the unrelenting pressure society puts on motherhood

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a dark meditation on what women are forced into.

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From the moment The Lost Daughter begins, with Leda (Olivia Coleman) arriving to her Grecian holiday bungalow, feelings of both palpable disease and pervasive uneasiness are inescapable. Fog horns blow in the night, the fruit molds, a child gets soap in her eyes, a boat zips in and out too closely to swimmers, a cicada molts atop the bed pillows, and a centipede crawls out of a doll’s mouth. As if the name of the movie wasn’t implication enough, there is an insistence that something bad is going to happen. The film takes its time meandering through uncomfortable interactions, making the wait for Chekov’s metaphorical gun to go off excruciating for the viewer. We follow Leda on her vacation as she obsesses about a young mother, flashes back to her past, and ruffles the feathers of everyone around her; but in terms of the latter, we can’t seem to understand why — nor does she, really. Her dirty jokes never land, and she’s always saying the wrong thing. But Leda’s awkwardness isn’t the only uncomfortable thing about the film. The beach where most of the movie occurs feels like a cesspool of charged situations about to boil over. But they never really do — because The Lost Daughter seems unconcerned with what’s happening in real time. Rather, it feels more like a depiction of what happens to women slowly over time in society.

With her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes it clear that she’s here to tell stories her own way — and The Lost Daughter’s dark, unsettling meditation on the lives of women is undeniably unique. The story is an adaptation of the 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante of the same name. On-screen, though, it’s its own beast, given that it tells a female-centric story in a format that often takes narratives about women less seriously than those about men. The Lost Daughter basically takes the Bechdel Test — a measure of female inclusion in fiction which requires two named women to speak to one another about something other than a man — and flips it on its head. Men in The Lost Daughter are completely secondary — and downright perfunctory — in this world of complicated and anguished women.

When we see Leda as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley) who’s slowly losing her grip on sanity as her two spirited daughters tug at her body and nerves, her husband is nothing more than distracted wallpaper. When they fight, his cries are muffled in the film’s audio and mixed equally with the background noise. As Leda ascends the elite academic literary scholar ladder, her male rival in the field is barely given a full line in which to condescend to her when she has a moment of success. The men she lusts after are simply rushes of skin touching and clothes pulling. It’s perhaps one of the film’s most excruciating subtexts: if not this man, another one. If these men weren’t using and abusing these women, others would be — so why focus on their particularities?

There are three mothers in the film (one old, one young, and one expecting), as well as four daughters (Leda’s two from the flashbacks to her younger days, plus one belonging to Nina — played by Dakota Johnson — and one gestating in Callie’s womb). The film’s refusal of symmetry in that regard feels like another level of its dedication to throwing the viewer off. As you watch, it’s impossible to know among the mothers and daughters who is lost or who will become lost. And —without spoiling the ending — that’s because they’re all lost. They all have been or will be chewed up and spit out by society’s expectations of women. Leda, now in middle age, is crushed by her inability to juggle being a mother, a free spirit, and an academic in her youth. Nina is hot and unbothered on the outside, but drowning in the responsibilities of young motherhood on the inside — she’s also completely bogged down with men throwing themselves at her and deciding whether to give in. Callie, who is 42 and finally pregnant after having tried for eight years, serves as a foil to them both. The film makes you feel just as uneasy about what will become of all of the young daughters — who smack and scream at their tired mothers, appearing as young girl reflections of their mothers’ womanly malaise.

But more than who is a mother, who is a daughter, and who is lost, The Lost Daughter allows its female characters to be real, nuanced people — something more often granted to male characters in film. Leda is disturbed, judgmental, obsessive, meddling, and wanting. Nina is lustful, adulterous, immature, aloof, and short-tempered. Callie is oblivious, rude, abrasive, intense, and over-bearing. And all of this is depicted without men serving as catalysts for the women’s emotions. Sure, men exist in the film, but their involvement is secondary. They are subtext rather than the main story. The Lost Daughter proves that the women themselves are interesting enough to focus on. Most films reserve that kind of attention — letting the protagonists wallow in ugly emotions just for the sake of them being witnessed — for the male characters. Leda sums up this feeling toward the end, when she describes abandoning her children for a few years. “It felt like I’d been trying not to explode. And then I exploded,” she says. But instead of that being a bad thing, she expresses that rebuke of society’s weight on her as having been pleasurable. Yet its mark on her is still obvious, because women rarely escape society’s expectations unscathed.

This isn’t to say there’s never been a film before that depicts a woman as ugly, physically or emotionally, or that there’s never been a film to center women. But it’s the way The Lost Daughter specifically centers the ugliness of women — and instead of making it their fault, implies that it’s society’s doing — that makes the movie both uncomfortable to watch and canonically unique. It’s like Little Women got synthesized through a Lynchian fog machine and then reconfigured by Godard. The film may be intense to sit through due to its grueling attention to things we’d rather look away from, but it’s a refreshing approach to storytelling nonetheless — and a startling take on feminism that will leave you wanting more from Gyllenhaal.