Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter is a movie about bad mothers. The plot, adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, follows a woman (played by Olivia Coleman) who fixates on a young mother vacationing on the same island. As the film unfolds, Coleman’s character Leda recalls her own experiences as a mother and the resentment and regrets that have grown between her and her children. Gyllenhaal, as a female first-time director, is able to subvert the typical, shallow depiction of a perfect mother to reveal a more potent truth about the complexities of womanhood.
Though this is Gyllenhaal’s first time behind the camera, she has worked in front of the camera since the 90s. Her career was aided by the status of her family, as both of her parents are filmmakers. However, Maggie Gyllenhaal has still faced challenges as a woman in the industry. She spoke to Coveteur about these challenges and how difficult it was to get funding for her project The Kindergarten Teacher, about the struggles of an older woman. She often relates to the women that she portrays on screen, telling Coveteur “I think we don’t even notice the way that we compromise, the challenges that we come up against. We can’t let it stop us, and we don’t let it stop us.”
The chance to make a film about an “unlikable” woman interested Gyllenhaal, in part because of how taboo a topic it can be. Of course, motherhood has also been subverted in horror for decades. Whether it’s Carrie, Psycho, or the more recent Hereditary, the “evil mother” is a whole other trope that could be dissected and analyzed. What makes The Lost Daughter distinct from these other films (that I also happen to enjoy!) is how it provides space for nuance. Leda is far from a good mother. She resents her children and is frustrated by their incessant pleas for attention, for the lack of space she is allowed, and for the totality of time that is expected of her. And yet, Leda is not a monster, witch, or demon. She is still a person, a human woman who deals with the same pressures and bitterness as women in the real world.
These representations are not only a breath of fresh air from a slew of shallow female characters, but they can also be an almost freeing experience for the viewers. Gyllenhaal saw parts of Leda, in her contradictions and her unpleasantness. “She’s a woman who does something very aberrant, very transgressive. I’m not suggesting that every woman wants to or does the things that she does. In fact, the things that she does cause both herself and people who she loves very much almost unbearable pain, but I’m still asking you to see if you can relate to her,” Gyllenhaal told the LA Times. It is an act of empathy to see oneself in Leda, and it, in turn, permits women to embrace their own complexities and struggles rather than pretending they don’t exist, or that they don’t deserve to be explored.
Movies such as The Lost Daughter are made possible by women in the film industry, women like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who understand the kind of story Ferrante told in her novel. In 93 years, only two women have directed best picture winners. Though The Lost Daughter wasn’t nominated for best picture, Gyllenhaal was nominated for best-adapted screenplay. These films, as well as the women behind them, are necessary. They allow women to be more authentic– from good to bad to something more in-between and, ultimately, true.
Cover image retrieved from Vox via Netflix.