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Venice Film Festival: Netflix’s ‘The Lost Daughter’ Review, a Film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

“Is this going to pass?” inquires Dakota Johnson’s Nina toward the close of The Lost Daughter. She continues her probing to Olivia Colman’s cipher of a character, Leda, “I don’t know what to call it.”

This profound moment crystallizes that Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her first outing as writer and director, has identified a contemporary iteration of what feminist theorist Betty Friedan once called “the problem with no name.” Namely, that there is some force gnawing at the female soul but lacks the vocabulary for proper expression. In The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal gives form to these nebulous feelings of dissatisfaction through empathetic character building and a crafty deployment of cinematic grammar. With the dexterity of a psychological thriller and the attentiveness of a character study, she adapts Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name to bust one of the biggest remaining taboos of feminism: the madonna myth.

Nowhere do Gyllenhaal’s ideas about womanhood find more lucid embodiment than through Olivia Colman’s towering lead performance as Leda, a British-American writer who arrives alone to a quiet Italian beach town only to find herself hopelessly enmeshed with the lives of another family there. Colman manages that tricky balance of playing an inscrutable character, displaying ambiguity without sliding into ambivalence. Her motivations feel entirely unmoored from expectations of what the average person would do in her situation, and the sheer mystery of how she’ll respond to any moment in The Lost Daughter fills the film with an exquisitely wrought tension.

Leda’s manner of existence is an unusual one: she’s illogical but not in the traditionally impulsive way that usually accompanies a character with her demeanor toward other people. Colman clearly shows that she acts not out of fear or panic. The decisions are confounding but cogently studied in her own mind. There’s an internal logic that makes enough sense to Leda, and she’s reached a plateau of sufficient self-satisfaction to move through the world operating on it. She feels no need to explain this to anyone with whom she interacts, baffling them at each step with her refusal to bow to any social niceties or conventions.

For most of the film’s first act, Gyllenhaal places the audience in that puzzled position, trying to figure out what exactly Leda’s deal is. That central question powers The Lost Daughter for a long time as Gyllenhaal resists a simplistic pathologizing of her protagonist. This should serve as a strong indicator of how each viewer will respond to the film overall – drawn in by the spell she casts or frustrated past the point of caring.

THE LOST DAUGHTER: DAKOTA JOHNSON as NINA. CR: NETFLIX © 2021
Photo: NETFLIX © 2021

That intrigue passes with time, however, giving way to fascinating flashbacks featuring Jessie Buckley as a dead ringer for Colman as a younger version of Leda. It’s here where The Lost Daughter provides a bit more context on how Leda began to view her two young daughters as something more complex than just a joyous miracle of life. The film does not shy away from teasing out the character’s tortured psychology as she grapples with the idea that children pose a challenge to achieving the psychological, sexual, and personal satisfaction more easily obtained without the overwhelming responsibility of parenthood.

Gyllenhaal isn’t diagnosing Leda with these scenes, just explaining her and showing the experiences that formed her guiding philosophy on motherhood and selfhood. If any malady afflicts her, it’s a society that insists mothers become less of an individual in their own right once they bring a new life into the world. The Lost Daughter never tries to fit Leda into a reductive “bad mother” or anti-hero framework. A person can do strange, even reprehensible, things and not have those define their character. Leda finds parenting a choking collar to wear, and Gyllenhaal assiduously refuses to soften the edges of that pain and frustration.

Such an unbowed attitude toward norms cannot help but generate some friction, and it’s present in every new relationship Leda forms on the island. The way Colman exquisitely coils her character’s repressed longing, beguilingly visualized by the fluid camerawork of Hélène Louvart and intricately woven by the latticework editing of Affonso Gonçalves, leads to anticipation as to where it will finally unleash. Will it be with the kind property manager Lyle (Ed Harris) who seems to take an interest in her? The sweet Will (Normal People’s Paul Mescal) who dotes on her as a lifeguard along the coast where she works? The irreverent town youth insistent on corrupting her quietude? Dakota Johnson’s Nina, another brash young mother struggling with the confinements Leda recognizes all too well? It’s like an anticipatory whodunit waiting for the ball to drop, and Gyllenhaal masterfully milks every moment for both intrigue and insight.

The Lost Daughter does not purport to solve the problem with no name: the inability for women to express anything other than radiant satisfaction about their children, the idea that the act of childbirth creates a new person rid of all previous ambitions. But Gyllenhaal recognizes that there is power in simply putting a face to these unformed sentiments that can brew inside. Simply putting a face to the feeling is the first step in addressing the problem. Perhaps if it can be mentioned, then it can be managed.

The Lost Daughter world premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it on December 31.

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.

Watch The Lost Daughter on Netflix Starting on 12/31/21

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