A deep-dive into the ideals of motherhood in The Lost Daughter and Parallel Mothers as explored by a new voice and seasoned vision.
Leda (Olivia Colman) peels a navel orange upon a deserted beach. She’s not alone; she’s on a phone call. She chooses to make that call. But this concluding scene of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut of The Lost Daughter (TLD), makes one wonder if we are all lucky enough to make that choice - inviting others into sacred lonesomeness: a state acquired, especially by mothers, through much complicated sacrifice.
Gyllenhaal, adapting the work with permission from Italian author Elena Ferrante, stays committed to the spirit of the novel. There are slight shifts: nationalities, location of the narrative, languages – but within the film, these are not losses, rather choices that tighten the focus on the title at hand: lost daughters.
Who are these daughters though, and what kind of loss are we really witnessing? Is it the young daughter fledgling mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) loses during an idyllic outing at the beach? Are these the adolescent daughters Leda lost to an event in her own youth? The loss of daughters, whether in Leda’s past or Nina’s present, offers the following inevitabilities: all mothers were daughters once, and a woman will experience loss in becoming a mother.
Leda’s beach vacation is disrupted by a boisterous family who arrive soon after. Leda is fascinated with a young mother, Nina, whose interactions with her young daughter, Elena (same first name as the novelist), leads Leda back into her past with her own daughters. Elena is whimsical and playful, yet her person seems to have brought Nina to an invisible edge of despair. As Elena constantly pulls and tugs and demands attention from her mother, Leda begins to recall similar structures in her own motherhood where a single moment of peace was impossible. Both women are unhappily ensnared in motherhood, the film quietly conveys. Even if you aren’t a mother, you might suddenly have trouble breathing – isn’t motherhood presented to us as the ultimate fulfillment, the most woman-like we can be? In these suffocating moments of unending playtime, we may begin to think otherwise.
Leda’s memories of her own daughters are presented in flashbacks where both girls are reflections of Elena. Leda’s emotionally absent husband is enthusiastically cheerful with the daughters yet never seems interested in helping an exhausted Leda. A surprise outing to a conference lets Leda out of jail, so to speak, and during this brief bout of freedom, Leda embarks on a path that ultimately brings about the loss of her daughters. In parallel, Nina’s quick escape from Elena’s unending pestering at the beach leads to Elena’s disappearance.
Ultimately, both films are about women who are connected through motherhood, determined to find the light in the future and the balm for a troubled past.
The parallels in TLD are staggering – mothers and daughters aside, character names carry parallel historic baggage and sly clues. In Greek mythology, Leda was seduced to her detriment by a god posing as a swan – in TLD, Leda was seduced into her plight by what our society celebrates in motherhood. In Chekov’s The Seagull, Nina is seduced into disaster at the hands of an uncaring man – in TLD Nina has thrown her life away for a clueless man. Both Leda and Nina seem to be living in reflection of each other; what has come to pass for Leda is probably imminent for Nina as well.
Men in TLD are painted with the same grain – they constantly interrupt Leda and Nina. Whether these interruptions are welcomed in pleasure or imposed by social norm, whether it is the life partners our protagonists have chosen or rambunctious boys in a movie theater, the men in TLD eventually only bring frustration and pain.
If you haven’t read the novel, the film will reward you with the beautiful despair of unraveling the fate of Leda’s past bit by bit, while posing Nina’s parallel future in the abstract.
In Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (PM), we are treated to a different take on motherhood, thanks to the seasoned director’s most beloved tropes and muses: glowing, strong women (especially Penelope Cruz in her 8th turn in an Almodóvar film), finding their feet to stand tall. Whether they have found motherhood by accident or in friendship, or in bonds of fellowship, the Almodóvar females burn bright in their quest to become whole. And whole they will be, in all the exhaustion, the elation, the evolution of motherhood, and in the political heartbreak that lays buried in unmarked graves.
A 40-year-old Janis (Cruz) and 17-year-old Ana (Milena Smit) are about to give birth to unplanned babies in the same hospital ward. The brief camaraderie is forged deeper, thanks to cinematic twists of fate. However, crafted in the Almodóvarian universe, even the most impossible resolves itself into the optimistic, alluring rouge of Janis’s surroundings: the determined red.
From the grounded colour on her walls to the fiery roll of the baby-stroller, all is alright once introduced in Janis’s world. In this world, the mothers who want to run away are painted with unforgiving slants of steely hues. The mothers who stay are the glorious victors.
At the heels of this optimism, there is a different kind of a maternal longing – a desire to bring the lost bodies of grandfathers, husbands and brothers home - bodies that are otherwise lost thanks to the violent history of Spanish fascism. Most of the men peek from the sidelines in this narrative, and most of them are dead. Females aged and young, are all united in search of a conclusion that ends this film on a note different from where we have spent most of our time. But is it different? Ultimately, it’s about women – women who are connected through motherhood, determined to find the light in the future and the balm for the troubled past.
This reviewer felt struck by the parallel magic of both films – one imagined by a female-identifying source, the other crafted by a male point of view. From the side notes of the daughter Elena in TLD to the friend Elena in PM; from musings on “unnatural mother” as Leda labels herself, to the unnatural mother in Teresa that Ana has, there is an invisible thread that holds both films together.
Treat yourself – watch both.