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The Lost Daughter (Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal) The Lost Daughter (Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal)

The Art of Slowly Losing

The new movie The Lost Daughter shows a side of motherhood that Hollywood doesn’t often depict.

Its main character Leda (played by Olivia Colman) is not a monstrous parent or a saint. She’s ambivalent. She has two daughters in their 20s and is a divorced middle-aged literature professor on a working vacation in Greece.

Based on an Elena Ferrante novel, The Lost Daughter is actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut.

“I got tired of seeing, like, at best, 70% of what I wanted to articulate in a film or the television show,” Gyllenhaal told a virtual press conference a short time ago.

She says that as an actress on HBO’s The Deuce, about New York’s sex trade, she would write perfectly crafted essays to argue for why scenes should not be cut. “You can’t cut the orgasm, or it wouldn’t be a feminist scene anymore.” She adds that her notes were always, “a little bit funny, just the right words, not too pushy.”

So, as you would fully expect, Gyllenhaal set out to make her film set different.

A few years back, when Maggie Gyllenhaal was making The Kindergarten Teacher with Pie Films’ producing partners Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren, the idea arose that Gyllenhaal herself should direct a project.

Securing the rights to Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal re-teamed with Pie Films, crafted her first feature script and cast Olivia Colman as Leda, a middle-aged woman whose past haunts her when she meets a young woman on vacation.

Amid a Covid-driven location switch to Greece and quarantine with her film-family, Gyllenhaal crafted a feature filled with eviscerating but necessary truths about motherhood and all its complexity.

“Meryl Streep said this thing, and I really took it to heart, which was, If you’re an actress with an idea and you need it in order to do the scene, offer your idea with a spoonful of sugar. And I found that was really good advice,” Gyllenhaal reveals. “But it’s a lot of extra work, and I said to myself, I don’t need a spoonful of sugar from anybody.”

Gyllenhaal says she instead solicited ideas from her actors for The Lost Daughter, some of which became pivotal parts of the film — like putting lines about peeling an orange to a melody.

Jessie Buckley, who plays a younger version of Leda, made up the tune on set with the two girls who play her daughters. It was quickly wrapped into the story.

“The song just takes it to a whole other level, and it ends up being a major key to making the film work,”

she continues. “But honestly, there are things like that all over the place. I mean, I believe in actors with ideas.”

The song also exemplifies the nuance of the film: while it portrays an ambivalence about motherhood, it also portrays joyful and loving moments that provide Leda pleasure from being a parent.

“I think it’s very difficult, even for adults, to hold the ambivalence of parents and mothers in their mind. And so I think we’ve seen lots of films and television shows where the spectrum of what’s normal is pretty slim,” Gyllenhaal further explains. “And, in fact, I think despair, terrible anxiety, confusion, along with the kind of heart-wrenching ecstasy is all a part of the spectrum of normal.”

At one point in the movie, Leda does something that causes her daughters immense pain. Gyllenhaal said it was important to her that, despite that, Leda was seen.

“There’s a whole tradition of movies about crazy women by great directors with phenomenal actresses ... there’s some fascination with watching very interesting, powerful women go crazy. This movie is not that. This movie is about offering and challenging the audience to see if, as sane people, we can relate to her,” she proffers.

As transgressive as Leda’s behavior may be, Gyllenhaal said she could relate to it. And she’s had other women tell her the same. And while she wouldn’t do the most hurtful thing Leda does, she ultimately felt comforted reading Ferrante’s novel because she, herself, felt very seen by the honest depiction of a feminine experience in the world.

“A woman as a lover, a woman as a thinker, a woman as an artist ... I found it both disturbing sometimes and also comforting to feel like maybe I’m not alone with these things,”

Gyllenhaal concludes. “There’s something inherently dramatic, inherently compelling about being told the truth.”

Official The Lost Daughter Movie Trailer