At the end of most years, so much film work lands that a lot passes Detroit and its viewers by. But sometimes we get lucky, as we have this week — thanks to a slate of strong and complementary programming at Cinema Detroit. A pair of two new independent works distributed by A24 — each about daughters at different stages of their lives, and their relationships to their parents — showcase the sentiments and experiences of each filmmaker (both writers) underneath fine, plain veils of fiction. Aftersun and The Eternal Daughter paint contrasting senses of self felt respectively at the dawn and crest of life.
Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun opens on Sophie (Frankie Corlo), a girl of 11, pressing her father Calum (Paul Mescal) to speak into the camera, commemorating his birthday as he approaches — it seems too quickly — my own age of 31. We quickly find that the recording is bound to be more than just a curio, an early, probably miniDV record (as made clear by its blown-out, almost searingly bright images and shallow plane of focus) of both a shared moment and a document of its own medium and time. It soon emerges that Calum’s parenting style has skewed mostly absentee, making the trip to Turkey documented (by Wells and Sophie both) a kind of performative moment of visitation, an instance of a father enacting presence for a daughter he’s long ago left.
The whole film doesn’t look like Sophie’s footage, but it does owe something to it, pursuing a pressurized sense of intimacy in which objects, often visible only as blurred and looming shadows, frequently carve up and into the foreground of the frame. At times these forms are architectural. At others they’re remote but human, conveying a sense of reserve the film trades in throughout: granting just the barest sense of access to what goes on within even the people we care for most.
Though this strained sense feels bidirectional, with both Calum and Sophie attempting to muster some aura of a close bond they may not quite yet have, the film hews decidedly closer to Sophie’s perspective. Through her eyes or something like them, Calum appears burdened by both her presence and her absence, experiencing some hazy blend of failure, guilt, and responsibility — and thus seeming, while affectionate, relatively remote. In one telltale scene, Calum sways woozily with a cigarette outside the glass doors of their darkened hotel room (evoking a key moment from 2018’s Burning) as the camera peers over the bed and outside. The only sound we hear is Sophie’s nocturnal, peaceful breathing from the interior space of the foreground, placing them in separate worlds within the medium of film’s domain. Confining Calum to the sphere of image and Sophie to a space of sound, they’re isolated from one another in a way it seems only the work of filmmaking itself, in joining the two (in either Charlotte Wells’ or Sophie’s hands) can ever really hope to bridge.
The film oscillates throughout between moments like this and ones more convivial, moving between the wary and the tender with Charlotte’s sense of need spanning the two modes. Leaving much to speculation, Aftersun doesn’t promise any more than it can really offer, keeping its proceedings at a watchful distance even at the points where it seems most obliged to share and give.
More brimming in spite of its buttoned-up appearance is Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, which manages to expand upon the self-reflexive world laid out in her pair of Souvenir films while standing firmly on its own. Starring her old friend Tilda Swinton as Julie, a filmmaker vacationing with her mother Rosalind (also played by Tilda Swinton, more on that soon) as she works on her next script, the two find themselves in a nearly empty and sparsely staffed remote hotel ahead of (yes) Rosalind’s birthday. The atmosphere produced there, wooded as it is and beset by fog, echoes the Gothic works of past mid-century filmmakers, most notably Michael Powell’s 1945 I Know Where I’m Going! but suggesting, too, the resourceful horrors of Cat People and The Leopard Man’s ingenious Jacques Tourneur.
This sense of haunting vibrates between, as most potential ghost stories do, on some emotional or experiential frequency between that of freighted memory and the spectral supernatural, drawing little distinction between the two. Faces are rumored to appear in windows of empty rooms, mysterious figures pass through common spaces, and shadows and fog embroil themselves in a turf war outside. A dog even, in one scene, starts acting strange. Hogg renders this atmosphere with her trademark attention to architecture as a vector of mood, capturing through impeccable decor and framing the ever-evolving (though sometimes nearly embalmed) feel of the spaces the film inhabits.
For Julie and Rosalind, that “feel” of mostly peaceful, almost cozy hauntedness is wrapped up in personal and familial history, dating back to the time of the film’s key influences, just after the Second World War. (The sense is underlined, too, by the fact the film’s sole shooting location doesn’t look to have changed much since.) Within this context, amid the whirl of history we all move within, Julie and Rosalind carefully regard each other as characters in a way that’s about far more than some kind of actorly gimmick, embodied beautifully by Swinton and Hogg’s work here.
Each time the characters — two Tildas, as mother and daughter — sit or lay across from one another, they address and regard one another to an even greater degree than do most parents and children, as reflections of themselves. In looking at each other, they attempt both to be present and (in Julie’s case especially) to project a future while living in some key, confusing manner in the past. In this context, the two manifest a credibly thorny, deeply conflicted relationship animated by a sense of differing needs, a tension Swinton calls forth through carefully controlled performances. When the frequent brittleness of Julie’s demeanor eventually seems to crack, this sense evidencing itself more fully, the film reaches a new sentimental pitch. I mean this not negatively, but instead to credit a perfectly calibrated achievement in emotional rendering — expressive as anything that might be improvised within the film’s patiently anticipatory fabric. Capturing just as well as in The Souvenir films (in which Tilda acted opposite her own real-life daughter) the depth, burdens, and reservations inherent to family obligation, it’s a miracle Hogg’s film achieves such weight while managing still to breathe so well. Beneath each film’s vacation in air of coziness lies a sense of discontent: a stirring force in both.