The Lost Daughter opens with Olivia Colman walking toward — as if she means to walk into it — and then collapsing in front of — the sea. It isn’t a soft opening; even the ground is hard. Colman falls onto a stony shelf of rocks in the dark, alone save for the incessant sound of the waves, the only clue as to how or why she’s there seen in the previous ten or so seconds as the camera follows her, unsteadily, through an empty street at night. It’s a brisk scene loaded with unease and discomfort, and it sets the tone of the film perfectly.
Colman plays a writer and academic named Leda Caruso, who is on a working vacation in Greece. Her days are spent between an apartment she’s rented for the month and at a local beach, reading, and writing. It’s there that a large family, dominating in their brashness, descends a few days into Leda’s stay. Nina, a young mother in the group played by Dakota Johnson, and her daughter Elena catch Leda’s attention.
Initially, Leda observes the dynamics of the group from a distance, drawn in when Nina’s sister-in-law, Callie (played by Dagmara Domińczyk), asks if Leda wouldn’t mind moving beach chairs so that the family, joined in a scene by more people arriving loudly via speedboat, might take hers and sit together. Leda declines and an uneasy animosity between her and the group is set. Still, Leda’s attention continues to drift to Nina and her daughter, who we know due to flashback scenes (where Jessie Buckley plays a younger Leda) is around the same age as Leda’s own two daughters were when she began to establish her identity as an academic, and a mother.
Motherhood, as handled by Ferrante in the book and translated by director Maggie Gyllenhaal into film, is a drifting thing. Already this becomes a difficult, if not subversive concept in storytelling and our own experience as viewers in terms of what we’re familiar with. The interpretation of motherhood in entertainment, as role or concept, has traditionally been something all-consuming. To be a mother, in many cases, was the entirety of the role. Actors in movies and characters in books were bound to it and could oscillate away, so long as motherhood remained the center they’d revolve around.
This is still the preferred, or comfortable, understanding of what a mother should be in real life.
In an interview with The New York Times, Gyllenhaal said she wanted to structure the film as a thriller, even pushing toward a horror story when observing the “internal workings of [Leda’s] mind”. What struck me is all the ways the film works as horror because of how it seizes upon the internal workings of our own minds, shaped as they are by the tropes and expectations of gender.
When it’s made clear in the story that after long-building stress and tension Leda walked out on her family when her daughters were five and seven, leaving them in the care of their father, the horror becomes a woman divesting herself from motherhood as an identity that will take precedence over the rest of her life. Leda’s refusal to put her ambition second to her husband’s (an academic in similar standing to her), to shelve her desire or the wish to be wanted (she begins an affair with an older professor following a conference they both attend where he publicly praises her work), and to rearrange herself around the whims of her children are shocking only because we see her as a mother and take for granted that it should eclipse every other part of her as a character. Like any good horror story, it preys on our fears of the unknown or unnatural. Gyllenhaal needs only to tap into what’s already there.
“I just tried to be as honest as I possibly could be,” Gyllenhaal said of how she set out to portray both of the film’s leading women. “This is about normalizing a massive spectrum of feelings. I think especially for young Leda and for Nina, their desire — their massive intellectual desire, artistic desire, physical desire — it’s bigger than what they’ve been told they’re allowed to have or need, and I definitely relate to that.”
Indeed, it’s desire that coils easily with the discomfort of the film and rests at the root of many of Leda and Nina’s actions. When Leda wakes from a nap and notes a frantic Nina on the beach, Elena having gone missing, it’s Leda’s desire to be closer to Nina that spurs her to help find the child. Leda, who flashes back to a memory of her own daughter getting lost at a beach on holiday, quickly finds Elena in a pine grove nearby, playing with her doll, Nani. When Leda takes the doll, hiding it in her purse amidst the commotion of the family reuniting with Elena, her desire to have the doll is immediate and overwhelming, childish.
For Nina, whose relationship with her husband is rife with tension because he’s controlling, slightly nefarious, and just not that great of a guy, desire comes from the same sense of immediacy. She begins an affair with the attendant of the beach bar, an Irish student named Will played by Paul Mescal, with whom there’s no chance of a future. Both Will and Nina urge Leda to let them use her apartment so the affair can continue for the remainder of Nina’s vacation.
Discomfort is such a strong presence that it becomes a silent, supporting actor in the film, and something that we sit with for the majority of the movie. There’s discomfort in the actions of characters — their confrontations, the crassness of Nina’s family, and how they come into conflict with one another, with Leda, and even with the tranquil setting of the seaside town. A discomfort in Leda’s, and to a lesser extent Nina’s, choices, which is its own trope — the exhausted young mother making rash decisions out of desperation versus the older woman who should know better. Their apparent dissatisfaction with their lives and what they’re willing to do to change their situations comes into direct conflict with our own biases of what women should want, and ultimately be satisfied with.
Of this palpable discomfort Gyllenhaal noted that “when women express themselves honestly, it looks differently than when men express themselves honestly,” adding, “this is really dangerous to talk about”.
There’s an exchange late in the film that hits on this danger when Leda bumps into Nina in the town’s central market. After Leda buys an old hat pin to help Nina secure her sunhat, which keeps blowing off her head, Nina, emboldened by being alone and out of the constant vigilance of her family, asks Leda why she left her daughters.
“What did it feel like without them?” Nina asks softly, curious, the strain of her week with a difficult Elena who’s been without her doll evident.
“It felt amazing,” Leda answers, “It felt like I’d been trying not to explode, and then I exploded.”
Quickly, as if remembering her role and its expectations, Nina says, “That doesn’t sound amazing.” She also takes a physical step away from Leda, putting space between her and the perceived danger of her honesty.
In the end, Leda acquiesces to Nina and Will, and when Nina comes to Leda’s apartment to retrieve the keys, she sees Elena’s doll, which Leda has bought new clothes for and cleaned up since she’s taken it. Nina panics, her shock, and disbelief boiling into anger. As Leda tries to apologize, admitting, as if in explanation, “I’m an unnatural mother” and telling Nina that her own feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed by motherhood won’t ever go away, Nina stabs Leda in the stomach with the hatpin and storms out of the apartment.
It’s a symbolic choice of that same danger Gyllenhaal spoke about manifesting into physical harm, even between two women attempting to navigate honesty and the weight of expectation. But when Leda makes her way, dazed, toward the beach and slumps to the ground as we saw her in the movie’s opening scene, she isn’t lost. She’s decided to leave a place that only seemed to cloud and come to odds with her own perception of herself. She kicks her suitcase down the apartment’s stairs with force, gets in her car, and drives to the one place that’s been steady and free from expectation, the sea. When she wakes, soaking wet with the sun rising, she calls her daughters, who sound happy to hear from her.
“Dead?” She says in response to something we can’t hear her daughter say. “No, I’m alive, actually.” She laughs, cries a little, and tells her daughters to go on. There is no definitive ending in the sense of Leda arriving at a great truth of motherhood that will satisfy or sustain her going forward, or that she regrets decisions she made that took her away from her children. We know only that the emotions captured in the cascades of flashbacks we’ve seen all throughout the film ranging from tender to strained will continue. That life has to shift in its priorities in order to be and to feel complete, even (and especially) for women who are mothers.
“She’s not bad, she’s like you,” Gyllenhaal said of Leda. It’s our own uneasiness with ourselves and our perceptions that The Lost Daughter brings to light.