Pop Stuff: Ties That Bind: Myth and Metaphor in ‘The Lost Daughter’

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s e book presents a nuanced have interaction on what motherhood if truth be told entails, exploring a panorama whereby ladies beget extra agency and are having fewer young folk

“Don’t let it crash, peel it like a snake! Don’t let it crash, peel it like a snake!” The words are sung section childlike rhyme, section moving chant, section haunting refrain by a young mother and her two puny daughters within the closing mesmeric frame of The Lost Daughter, actor-became-writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2021 Netflix film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novella of the linked name. At the cessation of the film, our protagonist, Leda – reimagined for the disguise disguise as a British professor by a beautifully prickly Olivia Colman – has collapsed on the shore, capping what used to be intended to be a rejuvenating working vacation in a beachside Greek idyll. As a replace, the vacation has been soured by intrusive memories of fraught motherhood. 

When Leda is in the end slapped to life by an errant wave, it looks she might per chance per chance even beget escaped dying. She calls her now-grown daughters, imagining as she does, the manner they’d plead for her to peel oranges in a prolonged, unbroken coil. For her, the bittersweet memory recalls her daughters’ assigning a mythic quality to her minor abilities, nonetheless additionally their incessant demands; their refusal to let her collect motherhood aside for even a moment within the carrier of herself. These recurring leitmotifs of orange peel and snake, and the umbilical cord they evoke, counsel that for Leda motherhood is every treasure and torment, a cord she has tried and didn’t lower.  

These are thorny tips. For thousands of years, human storytelling, fueled in all likelihood by extinction fears, emphasized by story, faith and social assemble that the supreme lady, the fully realized lady, used to be the mummy. We see this all over, from Catholicism’s Virgin Mary, to the Mother Goddess, to the devoted Leto of Greek mythology. Once efficiently a mother, she must strive to be the true mother; patient, loving and selfless, in overall self-much less. These templates for motherhood beget incessantly, as with most of history, been written by the bearers and carers of young folk. In additional most up-to-date a long time, a smidge on history’s arc, ladies beget taken up their pens to jot down extra nuanced, unvarnished depictions of motherhood and been met with mixed reactions. When creator Rachel Cusk wrote her seminal 2001 e book A Lifestyles’s Work; On Turning into a Mother, a searing memoir of the challenges and even drudgery that moms face – one which bred infinite utterly different such works – it used to be met by equal aspects disdain as admiration. Today time, within the shadow of a plague that uncovered the unpaid and unseen labour of mothering, what used to be perceived by some to be Cusk’s ‘griping’ is re-evaluated by many as an pressing honesty. 


On this context of bracing depictions of motherhood, The Lost Daughter is a piece 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 received’t let up until she breaks all its promises. As she embarks on her vacation, Ferrante’s protagonist reflects on her grown daughters transferring to Toronto, where their father lives: “I felt gentle, as if handiest then had I introduced them definitively into the arena. For the first time in nearly twenty-five years I was no longer attentive to the awe of having to address them… I felt miraculously unfettered as if a consuming job, in the end dropped at completion, now no longer weighed me down.” By naming her vessel for these confessions ‘Leda,’ after Leda of Greek mythology, seduced and raped by Zeus disguised within the invent of a swan – an act that bore two young folk – Ferrante means that supreme motherhood is itself seduction and story, and the actuality is extra unruly and ferocious. In bringing Leda to the disguise disguise, Gyllenhaal performs the directorial magic of making public Leda’s non-public tips and affords a large berth to the visions of motherhood we incessantly allege about overtly.

In dwelling of fairy godmothers, sinful stepmothers, true moms and depraved moms, Leda transcends archetypes with a extra glum truth and finds, as if releasing a tightly pain spring, a snake, an orange peel, an alternative sage of ties that bind.  

Gyllenhaal’s film hews carefully to the novel, peeling support the complexity of motherhood for Leda as a family arrives on the beachside city and provokes a slack assault of feeling that dredges up her past. The family is a raucous crew (Neapolitan within the novel, and Italian by Queens, New York, within the film) at whose heart are a strikingly elegant young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her three-365 days-ancient daughter Elena (Athena Martin). The fourth central figure, extra metaphor than character, is Elena’s doll, Neni, who she carries spherical and cares for within the manner puny ladies plot. The spokes heightening the rigidity spherical this core are Nina’s carefully pregnant, overbearing and loads older sister-in-law Callie (Rosario within the novel) performed to nice assemble, straight away humorous and abrasive, by Dagmara Dominczyk; Nina’s threatening husband Toni (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); the seashore-hand Will (Gino within the novel) performed by Paul Mescal as male ingénue; and the crustily sparkling caretaker Lyle (Giovanni within the novel) performed by Ed Harris.

A chain of psychological confrontations plot up in a slack burn to the bodily one (a stabbing spherical which I received’t expose extra, you’ll beget to search out the film) that outcomes in Leda’s crumple. The first of these occurs as Leda watches Nina and Elena invent a well-diagnosed describe of maternal bliss; the oblivion of treasured moments between guardian and child. For Leda, their interaction triggers tips of the young daughters she in overall felt strained by as she juggled and stifled her tutorial profession whereas her then husband’s went full steam ahead. Her anxieties spherical citing the daughters she loves but appears like she continued, manifests as an envy of Nina’s seeming ease alongside with her child. This jealous remorseful about, rooted in Leda’s pushing up in opposition to her like thwarted wishes and ambitions and a society that by no manner adequately supported moms, transforms into a quiet nonetheless obsessive empathy as she begins to know Nina. As the youthful lady’s struggles alongside with her daughter and marital tensions on the discipline of the ground, Leda begins to feel a kinship with Nina, on the heart of which lies an unresolved tussle alongside with her youthful self. As the ladies replicate every utterly different, the sexual rigidity between Leda and Lyle, and later Will and Nina, faded in contrast to the powder keg of Leda and Nina’s peculiar pull. 

The forces tugging at Leda, Nina and puny 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 fully – one she alternately must reject, recapture, and reconfigure, propelling the act on which The Lost Daughter hinges. Early within the film, Elena goes missing on the seashore and is stumbled on by Leda to the nice relief and gratitude of the family. The quiet pride on Leda’s face finds that she is no longer merely a solitary traveler, relieved that her young folk are grown; she is any individual who misses feeling wished. Elena, meanwhile, is distraught and grows extra so when she realizes her doll is missing. We rapidly learn that in a reputedly inexplicable act, an echo of the reverberating lost daughter of the title, it is Leda who has taken the doll. Over the arrival days, even as Nina struggles and her child works herself into a fever, Leda furtively cradles the climate-overwhelmed doll, pumps sea water out of her and even buys dresses to rehabilitate her so she can return one thing extra ideally suited. Through this quartet of nesting dolls, The Lost Daughter prods the ways motherhood can contain, occupy, stifle, collect and smash every mother and child.  

Some critics, reviled by the root of a lady who takes a child’s doll and lies, beget posited that Leda will be mentally unnerved. Gyllenhaal has rejected this thought in interviews, explaining that Colman used to be ideally suited for the role precisely on yarn of she is so solid that it takes psychological illness off the table. In the novel, Ferrante gifts Leda as a sane particular individual that performs a mindless act, announcing, “The toughest things to allege about are the ones we ourselves can’t build.” By adapting the e book to film, Gyllenhaal is picking to rouse conversation and allege about these arduous things. Leda’s theft is a symbolic provocation, one which asks us to peek what she has lost and what she is making an try to reclaim.

Segment of the success of Gyllenhaal’s film lies within the choice she makes to ground this provocation in Leda’s memories, dropped at life by flashback. Folded support into Leda’s interplay with Nina and her family are snippets of Leda as a young mother. Colman, who has acknowledged she felt at as soon as drawn to Gyllenhaal’s script, suggested Irish actress Jessie Buckley for the role of a youthful Leda. Indeed, Buckley attracts a magnificently inclined counterpoint to her older self as we see her respond to her young ladies’ (Robyn Elwell and Ellie Blake as Bianca and Martha) unrelenting presence. They pull and smack her, and chatter alongside with her as she works, continuously making an try out her, as an instance when Bianca defaces the doll her mother presents her, a doll handed down from her grandmother – one more image of what Leda is making an try to revive. The 2 Ledas work like a ideally suited 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 Simplest Actress and Simplest Supporting Actress. Buckley, eminently believable as a lady struggling to collect her head above water, affords a separation from Colman’s Leda that permits us to expertise the fullness of any individual who’s modified by motherhood, a shift that we see might per chance per chance additionally be arduous and spiky, no longer repeatedly benevolent and rewarding.

Buckley elicits such sympathy for a youthful Leda that as soon as Colman’s Leda runs into Nina, Elena and Callie at a toy retailer and persists alongside with her deception, hiding away her have interaction of doll’s dresses, we nearly forgive her. Nina, frayed by her child’s clinginess since the shortcoming of her doll, has on the discipline of have interaction her a brand new one. Callie asks if Leda’s daughters collect her by a lot and Leda dismisses her, compelled to withhold a sheen of flawless motherhood for any individual who has no longer lived it but. In actuality, her memories (which we expertise by Buckley in flashback) are so triggering that she nearly faints. 

It is handiest 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 beget unwittingly excavated; she abandoned her daughters when they had been seven and five, leaving them with their father for three years in pursuit of her like unfulfilled wishes. When Nina asks in shock the procedure it felt, Leda replies by tears that embody the perverse contradiction of loving your young folk with out loving being a mother – “It felt unprecedented.” In the novel, Leda finds extra, announcing, “It looked as if it would me that love for them would collect me from becoming myself,” and admitting that she returned on yarn of “I realized I wasn’t in a position to creating one thing of my like that might per chance per chance if truth be told equal them.” We see that Leda is sure by a guilt as unbreakable as the ties to her young folk.


Leda’s perceived selfishness – this shattering of family, have confidence, code of conduct – is distasteful, irresponsible, but proper. Despite the e book’s and film’s important acclaim, it explains why viewers reactions to every Ferrante’s and Gyllenhaal’s work had been sharply divided. No longer being a mother myself, I am in uncomfortable health-geared up to build both the overwhelming tasks or joys of kid rearing, nonetheless every of us has a mother and portrayals like Leda’s merely trail us to peek moms outside of the elegant lines that the ticket confers. Even even though my like mother used to be irrefutably pulled to motherhood, when she married and desired young folk she gave up a doctorate scholarship on yarn of norms, social and structural, all nonetheless negated every together. My father, direct with partnership, used to be at the start ambivalent about having young folk, no matter the societal stress to plot so; a records I’m grateful for merely on yarn of it hints at picking to plot a life in a single more procedure. Leda urges us to think again your entire paths and identities that folks, seriously moms, retreat from when they beget got young folk, sacrifices that is no longer going to beget registered as such in previous generations when no longer having, no longer searching or delaying young folk felt transgressive, and it aloof does in a lot of societies. As Ferrante puts it within the novel, “I had wished Bianca, one wishes a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs.” 

Gyllenhaal triumphs in illustrating the nature of this sacrifice by a beguiling and unsettling window into the Leda who can had been. When Leda is given a risk to commute to a literary convention, we see the self she has been grieving. Within minutes of her arrival within the hotel room, Leda experiences for the first time in years, the gratified silence of a house to herself: to negate, to work, to record dinner. It is a consuming distinction to the previous scene where she has made meticulous preparations – cooked and labeled every meal, left instructions for every eventuality, sooner than leaving her husband and young folk. At the convention, Leda, dilapidated to being overshadowed by the older professor she works with (Alexandros Mylonas as Professor Cole), at the start keeps to the margins, listening tentatively from the backs of rooms. Nonetheless, a brand new Leda emerges as the American Professor Hardy, undoubtedly one of the realm’s brightest minds (Gyllenhaal wryly solid her like husband Peter Sarsgaard), takes to the rostrum and lauds Leda’s foresight and affect on literary translation. As the room turns to her, Leda experiences a sense of being paid the honor she is due and the flexibility that comes with it.

Buckley’s drained Leda and Colman’s timid one drop away in these scenes as we see a Leda brimming with intellect and possible. Hardy is a foil to Leda’s like husband, the effectively-which manner nonetheless in most cases absent Joe (Gianni within the novel) performed by Jack Farthing, who has ceased seeing his companion in any admire, caught up in his profession and struggling to connect alongside with her emotionally and sexually. Leda and Hardy initiate an affair – the eagerness of which is painted by Gyllenhaal in such distinction to the life Leda feels trapped in that she makes it more sturdy for us to comprise Leda for leaving the wedding. Leda’s act is much less about lusting after Hardy than it’s 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 maturity, Gyllenhaal crucially reveals us who Leda is deep down, who she used to be, the lost daughter on the crux of it all. 

Presenting young Leda’s departure with out moralizing it is one more of the work’s minor rebellions. How in overall plot we meet male protagonists who beget left households, where their prance and no longer their departure is the crux of the yarn? We are in a position to also no longer excuse Leda, and indeed she has no longer forgiven herself, nonetheless it incessantly matters on yarn of Ferrante’s yarn is ready contextualizing, no longer sermonizing, the act and Gyllenhaal captures this by refusing to collect Leda on trial.

Presumably Ferrante, an intensely and famously non-public and enigmatic novelist, anticipated this shared belief when she agreed to Gyllenhaal’s adaptation. We know next to nothing about Ferrante outside of her many award-winning written works that had been originally printed in Italian and contain the commonly praised sequence of Neapolitan Novels. Elena Ferrante is the pen name dilapidated by the creator since 1992, an anonymity that has allowed a freedom to search out arduous truths and contrary tips. The truth is, Ferrante commented in a column in The Guardian that she knew she had ventured “into uncertain waters with out a life preserver” with the discipline of The Lost Daughter. Nonetheless, when Gyllenhaal wrote to Ferrante (by her publishers) about her desire to adapt the novel to script, the latter readily agreed no matter her “explicit attachment” to the work. Her handiest stipulation used to be that the contract would be void if Gyllenhaal (who had by no manner directed sooner than) didn’t affirm the film as effectively; Ferrante gave Gyllenhaal her blessing and an obligation to remake Leda herself.  

In the linked share in The Guardian, Ferrante went on to allege that giving Gyllenhaal creative freedom with the textual direct used to be critical. She wrote, “Ladies beget for a somewhat short time been seeking out the manner and alternatives to give a invent of their like to what they beget got learned from life. So I don’t have to allege: it’s critical to conclude inner the cage that I constructed. We’ve been inner the male cage for too prolonged… A lady artist has to be fully self sufficient.” It is value considering regarding the ladies of The Lost Daughter by the prisms of their cages. The film and novel are proper accomplice objects on this sense, deepening and stretching every utterly different’s character portraits like an accordion. Despite divergences of language and locale, Gyllenhaal and her solid render the characters faithfully, making many of Ferrante’s themes shimmering and curious. But unexplored threads of the novel, tips that might per chance per chance absolute self perception beget bloated the thriller-like cadence of the film, obtain higher so effectively on the ties that bind Leda that it is value selecting them up off the metaphorical reducing room ground. 

Ferrante’s novel takes a wider sweep on the influences that budge up Leda’s demons. In evoking Leda’s like mother, an sad, trapped lady herself, and calling forth a childhood fashioned by threats that her mother would shuffle away, the novel reminds us that trauma is passed on in honest ways. Leda recalls living in effort of waking up to search out her mother long past, of “losing” her, even even though that by no manner comes to shuffle. So when Leda does disguise the irony of her like abandonment of her ladies, the speed and pull of generational forces is evident: we marvel how much of Leda’s desire to speed her family is a desire to speed her mother’s destiny. Her frustrations, Leda admits, had been borne of a effort of falling backwards, “toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of nonetheless or enraged ladies I got right here from.” 

Ferrante looks forward with the linked perspicacity that she uses to pass making an try to search out backward. The radical presents us perception into her daughters, Bianca and Marta, as children and young adults. We gaze the ladies and ladies that Leda returned to and plight how motherhood is a bond that endures even because it yields love of unequal proportions. Ferrante rips the sheen off the true child too. Leda describes the manner whereby her daughters require her to subsume herself, to hearken to essentially the most mundane important positive aspects of their lives at nice dimension, to beget interaction the blame for the bodily traits they abominate about themselves, indeed to beget interaction the blame for all the pieces – “The moment arrives when your child says to you with sad rage, why did you give me life?” The words ring like a cruel rite of passage that ripples your entire well past heart age for Leda; “How silly to negate you might per chance per chance per chance presumably show your young folk about yourself sooner than they’re no no longer up to fifty… To converse, I am your history, you initiate from me.” But Leda yields, as moms plot, teaching herself to “be ticket handiest if they wished me ticket.” And even in her yielding, there might per chance be a binding – protective acts that feel unspeakable but magnificent. She tells of quietly pushing ladies that overshadow her daughters out of their lives and of relief that her daughters’ first boyfriends acknowledged their qualities and sweetness, and “freed them from the trouble of being monstrous.” 

As with much of her work, Ferrante interrogates social and class constructions in Italy by paying explicit consideration to the patriarchal overhang and violence-tinged shadow of working class Naples, and excels in making the explicit universal. The menacing subtext of Leda’s Naples childhood, one she has fled for Florence’s bourgeois culture and “hum-drum decorum,” in overall is a microcosm of any alternative of countries. While the film suggests Leda is working from working class Sheffield, and Nina from Queens, the novel expresses the grip of family extra palpably. Confronted in Nina’s family by “the Neopolitans,” Leda realizes that escaping her roots is illusory – “My uncles, my cousins, my father had been like that, of a domineering cordiality… every question sounded on their lips like an record.” Ferrante means that motherhood’s burdens or blessings can not easily be unspooled from familial DNA. When Leda tells us that no matter leaving her ladies, “no person had thrown me out, branding me as nasty,” she is additionally alluding to a measure of freedom unavailable to Nina amongst a controlling family and a husband who “gave the impression trained by no manner to lose his composure, no longer even when his actions grew to change into violent.” And naturally, as we later see in Nina (and Leda herself to a stage) violence itself is a circular entice, breeding contempt and aggression within the ladies too. 

Ferrante and Gyllenhaal are inquisitive about challenges experienced, to a stage, by themselves and I imagine, extra moms than society permits us to build. By depicting ladies who react to motherhood in ways which might per chance per chance even seem nasty, they invent truer images of your entire. In direction of the cessation of The Lost Daughter Leda, pumping out the water-logged doll, dislodges a worm. The message right here is no longer that there might per chance be one thing amiss about motherhood, nonetheless that there might per chance be one thing scandalous about its sanitized displays. The worm in turn brings us support to 1 more metaphor: the neat spiral of the orange peel that wraps a bounty whereas additionally coiling like a snake. These mixed metaphors counsel that motherhood might per chance per chance additionally be defined equally by replenishing or consuming bonds, compassionate or domineering households, and uplifting or oppressive social constructions. By shedding gentle in darkish areas, Gyllenhaal and Ferrante might per chance per chance give these who are or desire to be moms a bigger framework for his or her fears and anxieties, and affords a have interaction to on the why of a panorama whereby as ladies beget extra agency, they’re having fewer young folk.


The Lost Daughter additionally crucially affords these who don’t have to be moms a car for expression. Even even though file numbers of girls over 45 don’t beget young folk, extra and extra by alternative, it stays abnormal or taboo to inform the is no longer going to to be a mother, to be child-free as a replace of kidmuch less, or merely no longer to beget to live in expectation or completion of the shift (the latter is terribly arduous on these who can not beget young folk for reasons from financial to biological). Excellent motherhood myths are proper initiating to be busted nonetheless non-motherhood, indeed non-parenthood is aloof incessantly seen as an actualized inform. One day of penning this, I felt keenly how fogeys know one thing that others plot no longer, nonetheless I additionally wished for wider consciousness that the flip holds a utterly different nonetheless precious intellectual and that what has been perceived as an absence of might per chance per chance additionally be acknowledged as success and wholeness too. Or else, we are in a position to continually withhold these who are no longer fogeys as incomplete adults beholden to the root of, “You haven’t stumbled to your particular person, you’ll swap your mind. But why no longer? Smartly, too slack now.” And on and on. Alongside with extra magnificent motherhood tales, now we beget to normalize what has repeatedly been proper for male protagonists and plight a multiplicity of others on the hero/ine’s prance, who don’t beget young folk or merely beget a yarn to point out outside of them.  

The enigmatic ending of The Lost Daughter will conjure a utterly different interpretation for every one who picks up the e book or watches the film; in that spirit I provide mine. In the e book, Leda, bleeding from a pain, will get a phone call from her daughters and solutions their worries – Is she alive? Why hasn’t she called? – with, “I’m dumb nonetheless I’m splendid.”  Now we beget near full circle to the outlet of the novel where Leda is in health center convalescing, having woken from a dream whereby her like mother is observing anxiously over her on a seashore. At the cessation of the film, Leda collapses on a seashore. She wakes to feel blood at her pain as an orange miraculously looks in her fingers, which she begins to peel whereas she calls her daughters. When they allege, facetiously, they belief she used to be dumb, she replies, “I’m alive, if truth be told.” The film frames this as a surreal, in all likelihood after-life moment. In every works, on the choice hand, within the house between living and presumably dying, Leda thinks of her ties to her young folk, to her mother. Whether she is ‘dumb nonetheless splendid’ or ‘alive, if truth be told’, the spirit of her words stays the linked. She has let shuffle of the guilt of leaving and returning and on the discipline of terms with the splintering of her unexplored possible for one which pushes living for oneself aside in record to live for others, a love that can crush because it binds. On this acceptance, forgiving and telling of the uneven path she has taken right here, Leda is in the end free. She has dismantled her like cage.

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-primarily based mostly Culture Writer and Movie Critic. A dilapidated Movie Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button