The endless pit that desire carves into our bodies can never be filled so long as we live. This is a notion that permeates every moment of The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut about an Italian literature professor whose seaside summer is spoiled by memories of a murkier time. Gyllenhaal’s read on how we cope with this notion is one for the ages. She’s crafted a sublime drama that feels like a revelation if just for its unobserved intelligence and beauty, in grave contrast to the mess we make for ourselves.
So much of The Lost Daughter is understood in the unsaid, in the body’s reactional signals, in glances left hanging in the air like the smoky afterglow of a life lived long ago. And in many ways, it is, with the narrative alternating between two timelines of one woman, Leda, wonderfully realized by both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in performances that should win them accolades as far as the eye can see. Those glances, among other masterful touches, aren’t necessarily subtext so much as text that Gyllenhaal assumes the audience is smart enough to read through as the two performers work in near-perfect synchronicity with their director to bring this woman to life; a woman so wrapped up in the interior that what’s real often registers as overload. Her journey in the story isn’t as dictated by contemporary events as it is by the past rearing its ugly head in a mirror that won’t shatter. And her desires, past and present, never cease to haunt.
Nagging throughout the runtime is an unceasing dread so overwhelming in its totality that any vista falls to the wayside to make space for pain. Leda’s every waking moment is infused with some disquietude for what’s to come or what has yet to catch up to her. Echoes of regret follow her every moment with every new connection haunted by those left behind. Attempts to escape the noise greet her only with the harsh reality of existence. Her determination to have a moment of peace is not heard by the great forces of the world, and so she comes face to face with a funhouse mirror.
Cracked and distorted but with the image still intact, Leda meets Dakota Johnson’s Nina: a woman whose mantle of motherhood, in its similarity to Leda’s, is all too much to reckon with. Yet she’s a most alluring force that Leda can’t help but eek toward. Each is the softest encounter in the other’s lives in a long time. For a brief moment.
Colman and Johnson are a brilliant pair in their scenes. Like true artists, they attempt to tear each other’s walls down, and they get close every time. Perhaps it's for personal gain, or maybe due to a self-righteous philanthropic knack. But when those walls do finally come down, they are both struck with a pang of betrayal over the most minute details. Worlds they built for themselves in disillusionment crumble with a prick and a pluck.
Leda and Nina’s relationship is built on the same foundations of the film: motherhood. Delicate in its exploration but violent in its truth, The Lost Daughter takes its title seriously, weighing the lives of both the children and the parents, but entirely through the lens of the latter. The crushing responsibility of children, as Leda tells an electric Dagmara Domińczyk, is emphasized in magnificent flashbacks that work in harmony with the present.
In those flickers from the past, one can trace Leda’s behavior in the present as Gyllenhaal lets the audience in on Leda’s experience with motherhood. She sees herself as just a young woman whose ambition was hampered by the mere existence of her children. They are little creatures whose world she cannot operate in until she’s brought it crashing down. Only in the rubble can she see them for who they are and what she’s done. Colman’s never-ending quest for a moment of peace is mirrored wonderfully in Buckley’s segments as she scours for the same. Both draw up nothing.
Leda is unable to come to terms with the notion that the quest is never meant to be successful. So long as we keep living in this world we create for ourselves, we can find tranquility. Forever bound by the connections we make, in the case of motherhood, quite literally.
Obsessive in the intricacies of the very nature of desire, Gyllenhaal peels back every character until they are but bone and bare. Those who are left seemingly as mysteries are the ones whose lives were never in for layers anyway.
In one scene between Colman and Ed Harris, that concept is exemplified. What starts as a cordial evening with assumed ulterior motives, and therefore desires, devolves into a total destruction of boundaries as the two are quick to realize each other’s true nature: lone rangers whose pasts have so rusted their beings that all they can do is reinvent themselves. And so they accept their newfound states and set forth on the next day. The resignation to the all-consuming desire is not only a welcome twist on how it corrodes us, but an almost funny standout in a devastating set.
That the story is set at an idyllic resort is not lost on anybody, and it may be the secret weapon of the whole film. It’s a setting so ironic in its beauty that of course only misery and regretful ruminations can come from it. Left to her own devices, Leda is still bound by her connections. Only at the end of the film, in a manner I won’t spoil, does she come to terms with this life. The regret is as much a part of her as her quest for silence is fated to fail.
In the final moments, Colman delivers The Goods. She does so for the entire runtime (of course she does), but in the 11th hour, she finds it in herself to deliver some of the best on-screen performance ever. After a sober reckoning with just how materially tied to this world she is, Leda is finally able to live with it. The last few minutes are some of the most brutally cathartic of any ending one could find in film.
A gift for any audience this holiday season, The Lost Daughter is one of the year’s best; a quiet film whose soul lies in the eyes of its characters and the director in equal measure as they work in tandem to create a ruminative piece with searing vibrancy. It’s a rocky seaside introspection, with the past’s roots bursting through the present’s surface at will, to create a tapestry of unfulfilled desire and self-deception.
With a cast to die for and a script to kill for, Maggie Gyllenhaal has debuted as a director with one of the most dynamic films in recent memory. It's a true masterclass on all fronts, so go see it to learn something. About film, about yourself, or how humanity can learn to cope with the endless pit of desire.