VoiceNotesCore: On Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter”
By Greta RainbowJanuary 28, 2023
Filmmaker Joanna Hogg has the nervous tic of, as Barthes writes, fastening down moments “like butterflies.” In her latest feature, The Eternal Daughter, released in the United States by A24 in December, a middle-aged filmmaker and her elderly mother — both played by Tilda Swinton — visit a near-empty hotel in Wales that once belonged to their family. It is a gothic ghost story, set in the dark days around winter solstice, and provides a kind of bonus track for Hogg’s autobiographical sequence, The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021). Between shots of the Voice Memos app pulled up on an iPhone screen and a worn copy of Tom Chetwynd’s Dictionary for Dreamers, The Eternal Daughter is also a paean to Jacques Derrida’s “archive fever.” Haunting and memory preservation might just be the same practice by different names.
Many of this season’s buzziest films center on family and memory: James Gray’s Armageddon Time marries historical social strife and the auteur’s subjectivity; The Fabelmans turns Steven Spielberg’s origin tale into three acts and an epilogue. These gentle recreations fit a particular cinematic mold that mobilizes nostalgia and pain as affective devices. In The Eternal Daughter, memory is ravaged — killed but not buried, creating the creature that haunts the house.
Hogg’s is a ghost story eschewing any rigid, generic rules. Other than a weird face in a window, the most ghostly specter is a white plastic shopping bag lugged from room to room. The daughter, Julie, asks after the bag, as though she’s spent years failing to get answers from this picture of perfect British reserve. “Just things to go through,” replies her mother, Rosalind. She’s not coy so much as dismissive of the question, denying the importance of the history of herself: “Letters, photographs …” “Maybe there’s things I would like,” Julie says, to which Rosalind responds: “I’m sure you’re going to put it in a film.”
Oh, the resigned resentment, so delicately delivered by Swinton! The remark hangs in silence. Hogg’s whole thesis might actually be in this line. Julie doesn’t need these letters right now; she’ll have plenty of time to pore over them after Rosalind is gone. Nor does Rosalind need to grant Julie permission; her determined daughter will use them however she likes. After all, she has used others’ lives as fodder to make her art before.
The Eternal Daughter stands on its legs as a singular piece, but knowledge of Julie and Rosalind of 30–40 years ago, in the Souvenir films, works like a thickening agent. Fans recognize their habits and special-occasion dresses from The Souvenir, which follows a film student’s love affair gone wrong and is based on Hogg’s experience. In the second Souvenir, Julie makes a film about the events of the first. When Julie photographs an elderly Rosalind in the hotel dining room, she references herself as the girl who attended parties with camera in one hand and drink in the other.
Poet John Ashbery’s process in starting a poem has been described as “lowering a bucket down into […] a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind,” then writing about whatever it brings up. Hogg’s mind is like reaching blind into a file cabinet. She archives her life in the same breath as she experiences it. In The Souvenir, Julie sleeps in a gold Louis XVI–style bed, and, in Part II, she hauls it from her apartment and onto the film set of her autobiographical thesis. The bed was not chosen by a set designer; it was bought by Joanna Hogg and her lover for 100 pounds at auction in 1982.
Think of the weight: for decades, the director kept a loaded relic from the affair that The Souvenir recreates. She kept the very letters that the film crew slides under Julie’s door. She kept Super 8 footage that the editor splices in between contemporary shots. She kept a recording of her lover’s session with her therapist that the actor who plays the lover listened to before the shoot.
Swinton told The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead that she believes “the reason Joanna has so many photographs is that deeply, unconsciously, she was living through this time knowing that she would make a piece of work out of it one day.” This time: Swinton and Hogg have spent more time in each other’s lives than not, meeting at their boarding school dormitory aged 11 and 10. Hogg is the godmother of Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, a first-time actor when she played Julie in The Souvenir. The layers of material reality within the fiction are maddening. These films produce intimate documentation of real women doing creative and emotional work. A daughter (Swinton Byrne) watches her mother (Swinton) play a daughter and a mother. While Julie is very much Hogg, Rosalind is a composite of women coming up in the Queen Lizzie II era.
Julie’s mission in The Eternal Daughter is hyperconscious; she’s there to start working on art about her mother. The impediments to the project, however, come from the id, her instincts fighting her archivist superego. Julie stacks books, shuffles pens back into a pouch, highlights a sentence, all recognizable tactics to procrastinate the actual writing. (Hogg is known for writing not scripts but 30-page road maps that frame what will unfold naturally while shooting. We can imagine Julie trying to design a similar maze.) The house is shut away from the rest of the world — cell service in one corner of the garden and wi-fi on the topmost floor — but what blocked writer comes away from the retreat with a finished draft? She sleeps poorly, woken by creaks and banging windows. (Sound designer Jovan Ajder makes the quiet brutally loud.) The house conspires to isolate her, forcing her immersion into the fog. She tries to be the detached scribe, but it doesn’t work. She feels conflicted about dramatizing her mother for an audience, as she tells an empathetic groundskeeper: “I’m not sure that I feel I have a right to do such a thing.”
The conceptual “archive” is shaped by the question of entitlement. Individuals and institutions battle violently over the rights to public memory. Whose consent does the archive’s custodian need to obtain? Who holds the right to evidence of a memory? Hogg doesn’t answer these questions but proposes that creating and maintaining an archive is not ethically straightforward, even when the archive is composed of her own memories, her singular works of intellectual property. This still feels like an act of theft.
Julie prods her mother into giving her material. Does this room look like how it did? If this was a different movie, maybe we’d get specters of children playing in front of the fireplace. But these rooms are static; this is not about what was there, but the act of recollecting. As Rosalind gazes around the space, describing the difference in drapes while she was sheltered there during World War II, Julie surreptitiously presses record on Voice Memos and rests her phone in her lap. The camera hovers on the bouncing sound-waves graphic.
Knowing that a moment is being committed to the record changes the moment itself. “The archivization produces as much as it records the event,” writes Derrida, reflecting on how to read Freud in 1995. When Julie starts crying during her mother’s testimonial, does the mic pick it up? Her interpretation of the moment is now sewn into her mother’s testimony.
Julie and Rosalind are both archivists, of different strains: the producer versus the hoarder, public versus private. Julie is the maestro, the auteur stereotypically coded as male. She has no children; her films represent how she spends her time and what her legacy will be. Rosalind is all soft-edged interiority. In The Souvenir Part II, a younger Rosalind (still Swinton) enrolls in a ceramics class as a bourgeois midlife-crisis response. “I’m going to be filling this house with artifacts,” she singsongs. Her daughter — in the throes of producing her film school thesis — turns up her nose, unwilling to see the hobby craft as an art form. When Julie loses her grip on a first-semester teapot, it shatters, and Rosalind hides her sadness. They fuss over the cleanup, and I wonder if either of them slipped a shard into their pocket. Different methods, same impulse.
For Julie and for Hogg, the archive is an activation site. Stewing in one’s own history feels like self-indulgence, but tending to it, making sure nothing goes missing or misremembered, is productive. This no doubt appeals to the high-achieving artist’s anxiety about how much they’re working. For Rosalind, her letters and photographs are “things to go through” — a burden. The damned plastic bag represents an unkempt archive, deepening Rosalind’s feeling that there’s a “muddle in me.” Contrary to the Marie Kondo command to keep what “sparks joy,” the archivist wouldn’t dream of filtering out emotions. Rosalind is unruffled by painful memory recall. “That’s what rooms do,” she explains. “They hold these stories.”
Clearing the muddle, which is Julie’s aim, requires accepting why we archive at all: to prepare for the moment when no new memories can be created. “[T]here is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression and destruction drive,” Derrida writes. “This threat is in-finite, it sweeps away the logic of finitude and the simple factual limits, the transcendental aesthetics, one might say, the spatio-temporal conditions of conservation. […] [E]nlisting the in-finite, archive fever verges on radical evil.”
Hogg worried that making The Eternal Daughter was evil, she told reporters. She was too nervous to tell her mother what she was filming in secret. And then, during editing, right before Hogg was finally ready to screen it, her mother suddenly died. Hogg was plagued by paranoia that the film had killed her. She preemptively dubbed herself an “eternal” daughter and invoked the death drive’s infinity.
A few years prior, Hogg was devouring stories that gave her chills. Martin Scorsese sent her recommendations, including the Rudyard Kipling story “They,” which became the film’s most direct inspiration. In it, a man stumbles upon a stately house inhabited by a blind woman and the ghosts of dead children who “can only be seen by those who have lost a child of their own.” The narrator only realizes at the end that the children aren’t alive; Kipling made him “imperfectly informed,” with the clever reader learning the wretched truth long before. Just as the reader can never forget a twist, once the man knows the house’s secret, he can never return to it again.
The archive preserves its subject like a pig’s heart in a formaldehyde jar. We are mortal beings playing with immortal tools. As an artist, Hogg captures the eeriness inherent in an obsession with holding on to things. Casting Swinton in both roles entangles cinematic and real time. A woman looking at herself: Maybe this is what a personal archive should strive to be. Hogg toys with solipsism but ultimately gives us something more affirming. When the film releases Rosalind from the living, Julie, too, is relieved of the fear that prevented her from working. Succumbing to delirious archive fever allows the dreamer to wake up in the morning, wash the sweaty sheets, and set about the task of tumbling toward the future. Julie will make her film. Hogg will make yet another.
Greta Rainbow is an arts and culture writer in New York. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Vulture, SSENSE, and others.
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