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Cutting Your Losses
A different argument for why The Lost Daughter doesn't work
Olivia Coleman and a doll that doesn’t belong to her in The Lost Daughter
I have not read Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Lost Daughter, which was adapted into the film of the same name by writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal—indeed, before I saw the film, I’d read nothing about the movie, and so didn’t even know it was based on a Ferrante novel. So I saw it cold, and I will admit, I didn’t fall in love. Olivia Coleman delivers a superlative performance as Leda, the main character, a middle-aged academic vacationing on a Greek isle, and Dakota Johnson is excellent as Nina, the young mother also on vacation with whom Leda forms a peculiar bond. But the movie as a whole really didn’t work for me, and I wondered why.
In the course of that wondering, I’ve read a number of reviews, and I’ve noticed that most of the critical ones wind up arguing that the film failed because it didn’t properly capture what was great about the book. Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker is a good example of such, though for my money the best of the bunch is an essay by Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman in The Point that begins by disclaiming the validity of the very tack they are about to take in comparing the movie to the book. I strongly encourage you to read their essay, as I’m not going to recapitulate it here.
The reason I’m not going to recapitulate it is I think this tack is wrong. The problem with the film isn’t that it didn’t capture the interiority of Leda’s character or connect Nina’s world to Leda’s childhood (the points Brody stresses), nor that it largely suppressed Leda’s choice to return to her children as a crucial part of her maturation (that’s the point Berg and Wiseman stress). Rather, the problem is structural, in how the story is told.
In the present of the film, Leda is on vacation, and encounters this group of American tourists who she finds vulgar and even threatening, and among their number is a young mother, Nina, who Leda is drawn to and clearly identifies with in some fashion. Nina, in turn, is drawn to Leda; it’s as if they can intuit that they have something in common, and the something turns out to be a profound ambivalence about their position as mothers. Over the course of the film, Leda has various encounters with other people—an older American who manages the inn, a young Irishman having a dalliance with Nina—but the two main actions she takes are to rescue Nina’s daughter, who has wandered off and left her mother frantic, and to steal that little girl’s doll, leaving her bereft and driving her mother a bit crazy in consequence.
Why would Leda do such a thing? Why is she drawn to Nina in the first place? The film answers by means of an extensive series of flashbacks to Leda’s life as a young mother, overworked and lacking in sleep, loving her children and irritated by them, dissatisfied with and ignored by her husband, and desperate for some respite, some opportunity to be herself and use her intellect. This, we’re to believe, is what resonates with her about Nina’s situation, and explains her conduct in the present.
That’s all well and good. The problem is that explanations aren’t what films are about. By spending all this screen time in flashback, and locating so much of the meaning of the present action there, Gyllenhaal drains her present of mystery, even of interest.
I can readily imagine the alternative film, where Leda behaves exactly as she does in this version, but without the explanation of the flashbacks. She’s irritated by the American tourists. She forms a connection with Nina. She saves the daughter. She steals the doll. She flirts with the innkeeper, but doesn’t have a liaison with him. This woman is a mystery. I want to know why she’s doing what she’s doing. Is she Nina’s friend? Is she her enemy? Why is she either? Her behavior is enigmatic, and draws us in. And when she reveals to Nina, late in the movie, that she once abandoned her children, the revelation lands on us as it lands on Nina, snapping into place all that we’ve seen her do.
Now, some will object to the idea that having a character tell us about her past is dramatically inferior to showing us. But I think that objection reflects a misunderstanding of what showing and telling mean. The flashbacks we see do indeed show us scenes from Leda’s past. But they are telling us information that informs our understanding of the present. They are still exposition, even though visual, and in that sense, they are dramatically deadening. By contrast, when one character tells another a story, they are taking an action—they are doing the act of telling, and we see that action. If that action carries emotional weight—if it’s not exposition—then that’s actually showing, not telling. A fantastic current illustration of that truth is the beautiful Japanese film, Drive My Car, in which many of the most powerful emotional moments involve one character telling a story to another character.
I’m not saying flashbacks can never work. The long flashback works in Casablanca, but that’s because it isn’t just exposition. It’s part of the main story, told out of chronological sequence because it is more dramatically effective that way. I think the flashbacks work in The Godfather, Part II, again because they aren’t exposition but a second story acting as a counterpoint to the main narrative (though I have a very idiosyncratic interpretation of those flashbacks). They work in Blue Valentine, which on its surface may look similar to The Lost Daughter in that we’ve got events in two time periods running forward in parallel. But again, the flashbacks in that film aren’t expositional; like in The Godfather, Part II, they are a counterpoint, a rising action of the relationship in the past running alongside the falling action in the present, only this time covering the same characters.
They don’t work in The Lost Daughter though, at least in my opinion, because they really are expositional. And because they are expositional, they are also reductive. Leda’s behavior in the present is not just explained by the past that we see; it’s controlled by it, in the manner of a trauma plot.
That’s a problem that wouldn’t be solved by restoring details from the book like having Leda and Nina both be Italian, and having additional flashbacks to Leda’s Neapolitan childhood. Nor would it be solved by contextualizing Leda’s decision to return to her children as maturation rather than some combination of guilt and exhaustion. I could be riveted by the story of a cranky, difficult woman with a guilty secret. But only if I stay with her, as she is now, and don’t get pulled away by explanations: well you see, she’s like this now because years ago . . .
Cut the flashbacks, and you wouldn’t lose; you’d gain.