Pop Stuff: Ties That Bind: Myth and Metaphor in ‘The Lost Daughter’
‘By shedding light in dark places, Gyllenhaal and Ferrante might give those who are or desire to be mothers a larger framework for their fears and anxieties and improve on the why of a landscape in which as some women have more agency, they are having fewer children’
“Don’t let it break, peel it like a snake! Don’t let it break, peel it like a snake!” The words are sung part childlike rhyme, part bewitching chant, part haunting refrain by a young mother and her two little daughters in the final mesmeric frame of The Lost Daughter, actor-turned-writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2021 Netflix film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novella of the same name. At the end of the film, our protagonist, Leda – reimagined for the screen as a British professor by a superbly prickly Olivia Colman – has collapsed on the shore, capping what was meant to be a rejuvenating working vacation in a beachside Greek idyll. Instead, the holiday has been soured by intrusive memories of fraught motherhood.
When Leda is finally slapped to life by an errant wave, it appears she may have escaped death. She calls her now-grown daughters, imagining as she does, the way they would plead for her to peel oranges in a long, unbroken coil. For her, the bittersweet memory recalls her daughters’ assigning a mythic quality to her minor skills, but also their incessant demands; their refusal to let her put motherhood aside for even a moment in the service of herself. These recurring leitmotifs of orange peel and snake, and the umbilical cord they evoke, suggest that for Leda motherhood is both treasure and torment, a cord she has tried and failed to cut.
These are thorny ideas. For thousands of years, human storytelling, fueled perhaps by extinction fears, emphasized through myth, religion and social construct that the ideal woman, the fully realized woman, was the mother. We see this everywhere, from Catholicism’s Virgin Mary, to the Mother Goddess, to the devoted Leto of Greek mythology. Once successfully a mother, she must strive to be the good mother; patient, loving and selfless, often self-less. These templates for motherhood have infrequently, as with most of history, been written by the bearers and carers of children. In more recent decades, a smidge on history’s arc, women have taken up their pens to write more nuanced, unvarnished depictions of motherhood and been met with mixed reactions. When author Rachel Cusk wrote her seminal 2001 book A Life’s Work; On Becoming a Mother, a searing memoir of the challenges and even drudgery that mothers face – one that bred countless other such works – it was met by equal parts disdain as admiration. Today, in the shadow of a pandemic that revealed the unpaid and unseen labour of mothering, what was perceived by some to be Cusk’s ‘griping’ is re-evaluated by many as an urgent honesty.
In this context of bracing depictions of motherhood, The Lost Daughter is a work of (auto) fiction that pushes the envelope even further, stripping motherhood of sentimentality. Ferrante forces us to confront an ambivalent motherhood in her novel’s first pages and won’t let up until she breaks all its promises. As she embarks on her holiday, Ferrante’s protagonist reflects on her grown daughters moving to Toronto, where their father lives: “I felt light, as if only then had I brought them definitively into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them… I felt miraculously unfettered as if a difficult job, finally brought to completion, no longer weighed me down.” By naming her vessel for these confessions ‘Leda,’ after Leda of Greek mythology, seduced and raped by Zeus disguised in the form of a swan – an act that bore two children – Ferrante suggests that ideal motherhood is itself seduction and myth, and the reality is more unruly and ferocious. In bringing Leda to the screen, Gyllenhaal performs the directorial magic of making public Leda’s private thoughts and gives a wide berth to the visions of motherhood we rarely talk about openly.
In place of fairy godmothers, evil stepmothers, good mothers and bad mothers, Leda transcends archetypes with a more uncomfortable truth and reveals, as if releasing a tightly wound spring, a snake, an orange peel, an alternative narrative of ties that bind.
Gyllenhaal’s film hews closely to the novel, peeling back the complexity of motherhood for Leda as a family arrives at the beachside town and provokes a slow assault of feeling that dredges up her past. The family is a raucous crew (Neapolitan in the novel, and Italian by way of Queens, New York, in the film) at whose center are a strikingly beautiful young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her three-year-old daughter Elena (Athena Martin). The fourth central figure, more metaphor than character, is Elena’s doll, Neni, who she carries around and cares for in the way little girls do. The spokes heightening the tension around this core are Nina’s heavily pregnant, overbearing and much older sister-in-law Callie (Rosario in the novel) played to great effect, at once comic and abrasive, by Dagmara Dominczyk; Nina’s threatening husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); the beach-hand Will (Gino in the novel) played by Paul Mescal as male ingénue; and the crustily handsome caretaker Lyle (Giovanni in the novel) played by Ed Harris.
A series of psychological confrontations build up in a slow burn to the physical one (a stabbing around which I won’t divulge more, you’ll have to watch the film) that results in Leda’s collapse. The first of these occurs as Leda watches Nina and Elena form a familiar picture of maternal bliss; the oblivion of treasured moments between parent and child. For Leda, their interaction triggers thoughts of the young daughters she often felt strained by as she juggled and stifled her academic career while her then husband’s went full steam ahead. Her anxieties around bringing up the daughters she loves yet feels like she endured, manifests as an envy of Nina’s seeming ease with her child. This jealous regret, rooted in Leda’s pushing up against her own thwarted needs and ambitions and a society that never adequately supported mothers, transforms into a quiet but obsessive empathy as she begins to know Nina. As the younger woman’s struggles with her daughter and marital tensions come to the surface, Leda begins to feel a kinship with Nina, at the heart of which lies an unresolved tussle with her younger self. As the women reflect each other, the sexual tension between Leda and Lyle, and later Will and Nina, pale in comparison to the powder keg of Leda and Nina’s curious pull.
The forces tugging at Leda, Nina and little Elena coalesce in Elena’s doll and what she symbolizes; the safety of caretaking for Elena, a respite from mothering for Nina and for Leda, her motherhood entirely – one she alternately wishes to reject, recapture, and reconfigure, propelling the act on which The Lost Daughter hinges. Early in the film, Elena goes missing on the beach and is found by Leda to the tremendous relief and gratitude of the family. The quiet satisfaction on Leda’s face reveals that she is not simply a solitary traveler, relieved that her children are grown; she is someone who misses feeling needed. Elena, meanwhile, is distraught and grows more so when she realizes her doll is missing. We soon learn that in a seemingly inexplicable act, an echo of the reverberating lost daughter of the title, it is Leda who has taken the doll. Over the coming days, even as Nina struggles and her child works herself into a fever, Leda furtively cradles the weather-beaten doll, pumps sea water out of her and even buys clothes to rehabilitate her so she can return something more perfect. Through this quartet of nesting dolls, The Lost Daughter prods the ways motherhood can embrace, contain, stifle, sustain and rupture both mother and child.
Some critics, reviled by the idea of a woman who takes a child’s doll and lies, have posited that Leda could be mentally disturbed. Gyllenhaal has rejected this idea in interviews, explaining that Colman was perfect for the role precisely because she is so solid that it takes mental illness off the table. In the novel, Ferrante presents Leda as a sane person who performs a senseless act, saying, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” By adapting the book to film, Gyllenhaal is choosing to rouse conversation and talk about these hard things. Leda’s theft is a symbolic provocation, one that asks us to examine what she has lost and what she is trying to reclaim.
Part of the success of Gyllenhaal’s film lies in the choice she makes to ground this provocation in Leda’s memories, brought to life through flashback. Folded back into Leda’s interplay with Nina and her family are snippets of Leda as a young mother. Colman, who has said she felt instantly drawn to Gyllenhaal’s script, suggested Irish actress Jessie Buckley for the role of a younger Leda. Indeed, Buckley draws a magnificently vulnerable counterpoint to her older self as we see her respond to her young girls’ (Robyn Elwell and Ellie Blake as Bianca and Martha) unrelenting presence. They pull and smack her, and chatter with her as she works, constantly testing her, for instance when Bianca defaces the doll her mother gives her, a doll handed down from her grandmother – another symbol of what Leda is trying to restore. The two Ledas work like a perfect sleight of hand and deservedly garnered a slew of accolades including Oscar nominations (the third in four years for Colman and the first for Buckley) for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Buckley, eminently believable as a woman struggling to keep her head above water, provides a separation from Colman’s Leda that allows us to experience the fullness of someone who is changed by motherhood, a shift that we see can be hard and spiky, not always benevolent and rewarding.
Buckley elicits such sympathy for a younger Leda that when Colman’s Leda runs into Nina, Elena and Callie at a toy store and persists with her deception, hiding away her purchase of doll’s clothes, we almost forgive her. Nina, frayed by her child’s clinginess since the loss of her doll, has come to buy her a new one. Callie asks if Leda’s daughters put her through a lot and Leda dismisses her, compelled to preserve a sheen of flawless motherhood for someone who has not lived it yet. In actuality, her memories (which we experience through Buckley in flashback) are so triggering that she almost faints.
It is only later when she runs into Nina alone and Nina tells her how exhausted she is that Leda confesses the thing that Nina, her child and the doll have unwittingly excavated; she abandoned her daughters when they were seven and five, leaving them with their father for three years in pursuit of her own unfulfilled needs. When Nina asks in shock how it felt, Leda replies through tears that embody the perverse contradiction of loving your children without loving being a mother – “It felt amazing.” In the novel, Leda reveals more, saying, “It seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself,” and admitting that she returned because “I realized I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them.” We see that Leda is bound by a guilt as unbreakable as the ties to her children.
Leda’s perceived selfishness – this shattering of family, trust, code of behavior – is distasteful, irresponsible, yet true. Despite the book’s and film’s critical acclaim, it explains why audience reactions to both Ferrante’s and Gyllenhaal’s work have been sharply divided. Not being a mother myself, I am ill-equipped to understand either the overwhelming responsibilities or joys of child rearing, but each of us has a mother and portrayals like Leda’s simply urge us to examine mothers outside of the neat lines that the label confers. Even though my own mother was irrefutably pulled to motherhood, when she married and desired children she gave up a doctorate scholarship because norms, social and structural, all but negated both together. My father, content with partnership, was initially ambivalent about having children, despite the societal pressure to do so; a knowledge I’m grateful for simply because it hints at choosing to build a life differently. Leda urges us to reconsider all the paths and identities that parents, especially mothers, retreat from when they have children, sacrifices that may not have registered as such in previous generations when not having, not wanting or delaying children felt transgressive, and it still does in many societies. As Ferrante puts it in the novel, “I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs.”
Gyllenhaal triumphs in illustrating the nature of this sacrifice through a beguiling and unsettling window into the Leda who could have been. When Leda is given an opportunity to travel to a literary conference, we see the self she has been grieving. Within minutes of her arrival in the hotel room, Leda experiences for the first time in years, the blissful silence of a space to herself: to think, to work, to order dinner. It is a sharp contrast to the previous scene where she has made meticulous preparations – cooked and labeled each meal, left instructions for every eventuality, before leaving her husband and children. At the conference, Leda, used to being overshadowed by the older professor she works with (Alexandros Mylonas as Professor Cole), initially keeps to the margins, listening tentatively from the backs of rooms. However, a new Leda emerges as the American Professor Hardy, one of the field’s brightest minds (Gyllenhaal wryly cast her own husband Peter Sarsgaard), takes to the podium and lauds Leda’s foresight and influence on literary translation. As the room turns to her, Leda experiences a sense of being paid the attention she is due and the power that comes with it.
Buckley’s drained Leda and Colman’s haunted one fall away in these scenes as we see a Leda brimming with intellect and potential. Hardy is a foil to Leda’s own husband, the well-meaning but typically absent Joe (Gianni in the novel) played by Jack Farthing, who has ceased seeing his wife at all, caught up in his career and struggling to connect with her emotionally and sexually. Leda and Hardy begin an affair – the passion of which is painted by Gyllenhaal in such contrast to the life Leda feels trapped in that she makes it harder for us to judge Leda for leaving the marriage. Leda’s act is less about lusting after Hardy than it is a willingness to be seduced by a selfhood she yearns for. As if in conversation with the Leda who feels she lost her daughters to her choices and to adulthood, Gyllenhaal crucially shows us who Leda is deep down, who she was, the lost daughter at the crux of it all.
Presenting young Leda’s departure without moralizing it is another of the work’s minor rebellions. How often do we meet male protagonists who have left families, where their journey and not their departure is the crux of the story? We may not excuse Leda, and indeed she has not forgiven herself, but it hardly matters because Ferrante’s story is about contextualizing, not sermonizing, the act and Gyllenhaal captures this by refusing to put Leda on trial.
Perhaps Ferrante, an intensely and famously private and enigmatic novelist, anticipated this shared understanding when she agreed to Gyllenhaal’s adaptation. We know next to nothing about Ferrante outside of her many award-winning written works that were originally published in Italian and include the widely praised series of Neapolitan Novels. Elena Ferrante is the pen name used by the author since 1992, an anonymity that has allowed a freedom to explore hard truths and contrary ideas. In fact, Ferrante commented in a column in The Guardian that she knew she had ventured “into dangerous waters without a life preserver” with the subject of The Lost Daughter. However, when Gyllenhaal wrote to Ferrante (through her publishers) about her desire to adapt the novel to script, the latter readily agreed despite her “particular attachment” to the work. Her only stipulation was that the contract would be void if Gyllenhaal (who had never directed before) did not direct the film as well; Ferrante gave Gyllenhaal her blessing and a duty to remake Leda herself.
In the same piece in The Guardian, Ferrante went on to say that giving Gyllenhaal creative freedom with the text was crucial. She wrote, “Women have for a relatively short time been seeking the means and opportunities to give a form of their own to what they have learned from life. So I don’t want to say: you have to stay inside the cage that I constructed. We’ve been inside the male cage for too long… A woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous.” It is worth considering the women of The Lost Daughter through the prisms of their cages. The film and novel are true companion pieces in this sense, deepening and stretching each other’s character portraits like an accordion. Despite divergences of language and locale, Gyllenhaal and her cast render the characters faithfully, making many of Ferrante’s themes vivid and engaging. Yet unexplored threads of the novel, ideas that would no doubt have bloated the thriller-like cadence of the film, expand so well on the ties that bind Leda that it is worth picking them up off the metaphorical cutting room floor.
Ferrante’s novel takes a wider sweep at the influences that stir up Leda’s demons. In evoking Leda’s own mother, an unhappy, trapped woman herself, and calling forth a childhood shaped by threats that her mother would leave, the novel reminds us that trauma is passed on in surprising ways. Leda recalls living in fear of waking up to find her mother gone, of “losing” her, even though that never comes to pass. So when Leda does reveal the irony of her own abandonment of her girls, the push and pull of generational forces is evident: we wonder how much of Leda’s desire to escape her family is a desire to escape her mother’s fate. Her frustrations, Leda admits, were borne of a fear of falling backwards, “toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from.”
Ferrante looks forward with the same perspicacity that she uses to look backward. The novel gives us insight into her daughters, Bianca and Marta, as teens and young adults. We glimpse the girls and women that Leda returned to and see how motherhood is a bond that endures even as it yields love of unequal proportions. Ferrante rips the sheen off the good child too. Leda describes the way in which her daughters require her to subsume herself, to listen to the most mundane details of their lives at great length, to take the blame for the physical traits they dislike about themselves, indeed to take the blame for everything – “The moment arrives when your child says to you with unhappy rage, why did you give me life?” The words ring like a cruel rite of passage that ripples all the way past middle age for Leda; “How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they’re at least fifty… To say, I am your history, you begin from me.” Yet Leda yields, as mothers do, teaching herself to “be present only if they wanted me present.” And even in her yielding, there is a binding – protective acts that feel unspeakable yet honest. She tells of quietly pushing girls that overshadow her daughters out of their lives and of relief that her daughters’ first boyfriends recognized their qualities and beauty, and “freed them from the anguish of being ugly.”
As with much of her work, Ferrante interrogates social and class structures in Italy by paying particular attention to the patriarchal overhang and violence-tinged shadow of working class Naples, and excels in making the specific universal. The menacing subtext of Leda’s Naples childhood, one she has fled for Florence’s bourgeois culture and “hum-drum decorum,” could be a microcosm of any number of countries. While the film suggests Leda is running from working class Sheffield, and Nina from Queens, the novel expresses the grip of family more palpably. Confronted in Nina’s family by “the Neopolitans,” Leda realizes that escaping her roots is illusory – “My uncles, my cousins, my father were like that, of a domineering cordiality… every question sounded on their lips like an order.” Ferrante suggests that motherhood’s burdens or blessings cannot easily be unspooled from familial DNA. When Leda tells us that despite leaving her girls, “no one had thrown me out, branding me as contemptible,” she is also alluding to a measure of freedom unavailable to Nina amongst a controlling family and a husband who “seemed trained never to lose his composure, not even when his actions became violent.” And of course, as we later see in Nina (and Leda herself to a degree) violence itself is a circular trap, breeding contempt and aggression in the women too.
Ferrante and Gyllenhaal are occupied with challenges experienced, to a degree, by themselves and I imagine, more mothers than society permits us to realize. By depicting women who react to motherhood in ways that might even seem contemptible, they form truer images of the whole. Towards the end of The Lost Daughter Leda, pumping out the water-logged doll, dislodges a worm. The message here is not that there is something amiss about motherhood, but that there is something rotten about its sanitized presentations. The worm in turn brings us back to another metaphor: the clean spiral of the orange peel that wraps a bounty while also coiling like a snake. These mixed metaphors suggest that motherhood can be defined equally by replenishing or challenging bonds, compassionate or domineering families, and uplifting or oppressive social structures. By shedding light in dark places, Gyllenhaal and Ferrante might give those who are or desire to be mothers a larger framework for their fears and anxieties, and improve on the why of a landscape in which as women have more agency, they are having fewer children.
The Lost Daughter also crucially provides those who don’t want to be mothers a vehicle for expression. Although record numbers of women over 45 don’t have children, increasingly by choice, it remains uncommon or taboo to state the desire not to be a mother, to be child-free as opposed to childless, or simply not to have to live in expectation or completion of the shift (the latter is especially hard on those who cannot have children for reasons from economic to biological). Perfect motherhood myths are just beginning to be busted but non-motherhood, indeed non-parenthood is still rarely seen as an actualized state. In the course of writing this, I felt keenly how parents know something that others do not, but I also wished for wider awareness that the flip holds a different but valuable knowing and that what has been perceived as an absence of can be recognized as fulfillment and wholeness too. Or else, we will always hold those who are not parents as incomplete adults beholden to the idea of, “You haven’t found your person, you’ll change your mind. But why not? Well, too late now.” And on and on. Along with more honest motherhood stories, we need to normalize what has always been true for male protagonists and see a multiplicity of others on the hero/ine’s journey, who don’t have children or simply have a story to tell outside of them.
The enigmatic ending of The Lost Daughter will conjure a different interpretation for each person who picks up the book or watches the film; in that spirit I offer mine. In the book, Leda, bleeding from a wound, gets a phone call from her daughters and answers their worries – Is she alive? Why hasn’t she called? – with, “I’m dead but I’m fine.” We have come full circle to the opening of the novel where Leda is in hospital recovering, having woken from a dream in which her own mother is watching anxiously over her on a beach. At the end of the film, Leda collapses on a beach. She wakes to feel blood at her wound as an orange miraculously appears in her hands, which she begins to peel while she calls her daughters. When they say, facetiously, they thought she was dead, she replies, “I’m alive, actually.” The movie frames this as a surreal, perhaps after-life moment. In both works, however, in the space between living and possibly dying, Leda thinks of her ties to her children, to her mother. Whether she is ‘dead but fine’ or ‘alive, actually’, the spirit of her words remains the same. She has let go of the guilt of leaving and returning and come to terms with the splintering of her unexplored potential for one that pushes living for oneself aside in order to live for others, a love that can crush as it binds. In this acceptance, forgiving and telling of the uneven path she has taken here, Leda is finally free. She has dismantled her own cage.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani