Friday, January 14, 2022

Finding The Lost Daughter (or "Leda and the Swain")

The slyness of The Lost Daughter is part of its attraction. This film, based on a novel of the same name by Italy’s mysterious Elena Ferrante, does contain as an important plot strand a little girl  who strays from the Greek beach where her parents are enjoying sun and sand. But mostly this is the story of a mother who feels lost.  Or, at least, a mother who is continually questioning her own behavior, past and present.

 The film, effectively helmed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her directorial debut, shifts artfully between past and present. The Leda of the past (her name is a nod to Greek mythology and the poetry of Yeats) is a frazzled young wife and mother who resents the intrusions of her two rambunctious young daughters as she struggles to translate English verse into Italian. The Leda of the present—the one who occupies the central position in the film—is a highly placed professor of comparative literature. Loaded down with heavy books, she arrives at an oceanside resort town in Greece, for what she terms a working holiday.

 This older Leda, on the cusp of middle-age, is sometimes hard to fathom. As played by the always watchable Olivia Colman, she sometimes seems to be joyously drinking in the spirit of her new surroundings. The beach is enticing, the caretakers who work in the area are friendly, and she responds with amiable politeness to everyone she meets. But there’s another side to her too: she can throw us off balance with a sudden rude remark, and there’s something about the big noisy family group that encamps near “her” spot on the beach that is clearly setting her off. Some reviewers, seemingly determined to make the film into a suspense thriller, emphasize the mysteries of Leda’s behavior as though this were an episode of Murder, She Wrote. No, it’s actually more of an in-depth character study of a woman who recoils from others partly because she’s recoiling—unsuccessfully—from herself.

 The most baffling aspects of Leda’s behavior involve a child’s doll, a rather scruffy plaything beloved by the little girl whose brief disappearance gives the story its title. While being the one to locate the missing child, Leda secretly holds onto her doll, even as the girl’s family desperately searches for its whereabouts. Why? Many smart people I know are debating this question. But I believe the answer is hidden in those flashbacks, in which another well-loved doll, essentially a family heirloom, makes an appearance. The contradictory things Leda does in the present are inextricably linked to her behavior in the past, as a young mother (well played by Jessie Buckley) torn between her various responsibilities and her flagging sense of self.

 Because the true identity of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante remains a mystery among literary types, some have speculated that “she” is actually a male author. I have no way of knowing, but based on the contents of this film I’d say that Ferrante, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, knows at first hand what it’s like to go through life as a female. Women who’ve raised children have a special insight into the tug-of-war between motherhood and self-preservation. Leda, it seems clear, loved (and still loves) her daughters, but has also spent her life fighting to hold onto a personal identity that doesn’t always have room for their daily demands. An intellectual woman, one whose ambitions stretch far beyond hearth and home, is not always satisfied with playing the familial caretaker role. No wonder the younger Leda fell so catastrophically for someone who admired her for her mind.  



  1. Ironically, my wife and I just finished watching the movie. You captured the mystery of the plot magnificently. I’ll figure Leda out right after I fully understand Moby Dick. Your writing is electric. Bob.

  2. You certainly make me feel good about myself, Bob -- a splendid thing at a tough time!