In the new film The Lost Daughter, Leda – an academic and mother of two, played by Olivia Colman in present day and Jessie Buckley in flashbacks – says aloud the things that women aren’t supposed to: Children are a crushing responsibility. I’m suffocating. I hate talking to my kids on the phone. The bits I find most beautiful in my daughters are the bits that are alien to me, because I don’t have to take responsibility for that.
When the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal read the source novel, by Elena Ferrante, “I felt this shock and invigoration, and also a kind of terror at these things being said out loud,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “And a kind of comfort: If she’s writing about these things, I can’t be the only one who’s feeling them. That turns me on. That gets me going.”
Sitting alone reading a book is one thing. Gyllenhaal wondered what would happen if she put those subversive truths up on a movie screen, so people could see and hear them said aloud, in a communal situation – “maybe sitting next to your mother or husband or strangers.” She got Ferrante’s blessing, wrote a brilliant script and made The Lost Daughter, her directorial debut.
A quick summary: On vacation in Greece, Leda meets a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who triggers a flood of memories of herself at Nina’s age. At first the women find comfort in each other’s honesty – but at what point does honesty become dangerous?
When the film won four Gotham Awards at the end of November, kickstarting a promising awards season, Gyllenhaal, 44, acknowledged that it took her a long time to “feel entitled” to write and direct. Though she grew up in Los Angeles with two director parents, “there were not a lot of models of women making films as writer/directors,” she says. “They were outliers, few and far between. I assumed if I loved storytelling and movies, I’d have to be an actress. A thinking actress – certainly there were models for that.”
She did rich, layered work in films and series including Secretary, Crazy Heart, The Honorable Woman and The Deuce, but she kept banging against a wall. “Maybe 30 per cent of what I wanted to express was coming through,” she says. “I wanted more.”
Too often, getting what she needed artistically required Herculean effort. “Meryl Streep said actresses learn to ask for what they need with a spoonful of sugar, and I learned how to do that, just like we’ve all learned how to do that,” Gyllenhaal says. “But I got tired of it. I wanted to create a set where other people didn’t have to do that.”
She was delighted to discover that not only did she love directing (she calls it “hard work heaven”), she was good at it. Really good. She says she’s gentler than most of the directors she’s worked with, more respectful of and curious about her collaborators. But she knew innately when something was right and something wasn’t, what could be compromised on (suggesting rather than showing a car accident) and what couldn’t (the film’s location in Greece; a scene where men arrive on a boat; her editor, Affonso Goncalves, who was expensive but worth it). “I could feel it in my chest,” she says. “I know that’s reliable, and that was a great thing to come to know.”
One moment I love, that I doubt a male director would have emphasized: At a conference, a star academic (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal’s husband) calls Leda’s work “thrilling,” and compares her with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. She phones her husband, also a scholar, to tell him. Gyllenhaal frames Buckley in a supertight closeup as she says, “I haven’t even read Ricoeur’s recent work.” The music swells as she adds, “It was all my own thinking.”
“Yeah, I find that really moving,” Gyllenhaal says. “Maybe a different director wouldn’t swell the music there. For me, it brings tears to my eyes. Her mind is recognized. Personally, that’s superhot.”
Gyllenhaal didn’t give a damn that Colman and Buckley don’t look alike. She wanted their brilliance. “There’s a tradition of films about crazy women – excellent films, made by incredible directors, with great actresses,” she says. “This is not one of them. This is a movie about a sane woman who has a huge spectrum of feelings. Like we all do. So I needed sane actresses with strong minds.”
Leda is tough, and she makes choices that cause her and the people she loves a lot of pain. “So I needed actresses with humour,” Gyllenhaal continues. “Also, I didn’t want a fantasy version of a woman – I wanted a real woman, with blood in her veins.”
Western culture has taught women that if we veer out of a narrow spectrum of things we’re allowed to feel, then we’re bad mothers – “but that’s not true,” Gyllenhaal says. “As children, our survival depends on believing that our mothers want nothing more than to take care of us. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any parent who doesn’t feel ambivalent. Not just the sitcom version of, ‘I’m so tired.’ I’m talking terror. I’m talking the darkest stuff. Being responsible for a life, that will bring you to your knees. Of course, it’s also full of the most immense joy, but it’s heart-wrenching joy. You must grow in order to know how to do it. And growing always hurts.”
Speaking of things women aren’t allowed to say out loud: Near the end of the film, Leda admits things to Nina that prove to be too much; Nina flees from her. One of those things is, “I’m a very selfish person.” That rolls off Leda’s tongue easily. It’s clear that enough people have said it to her that she’s internalized it, but she’s also fine with owning it. The next thing she says, though, is a cri de coeur: “I’m an unnatural mother.” Does Gyllenhaal agree with Leda? Is there any such thing?
Gyllenhaal smiles. She likes this question. “So there are a lot of things in the movie that are not from Ferrante’s book, and there are things that are in dialogue with the book but come from other places,” she replies. “But ‘I’m an unnatural mother’ is a straight Ferrante lift. And I love it because it’s a riddle. What is an unnatural mother, and what is a natural mother? It’s impossible. The whole paradigm is off.”
“I love that line,” she repeats. “I was told to cut it a few times by people I respect. But I thought, ‘No, there will be an actress who can say this line, and make it lift off, and mean something that exists in our unconscious, that isn’t literary, that’s from her guts.’” And she was right.
The Lost Daughter opens in select theatres Dec. 17 before streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 31
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