In Henrik Ibsen’s seminal play A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer, a hitherto devoted wife and mother, walks out on her husband and their three children, significantly slamming the door behind her in the last scene. The idea of a mother leaving her children was shocking enough in 1879 to force Ibsen to write an alternate ending for some audiences in which Nora decides to stay. One actress refused to play the role as originally written, insisting she could never leave her children. The alternate ending was not much performed over time, and the original ending has of course become canonical.
Classic Hollywood films often present a mother’s decision to leave or give up a child as a wrenching heartbreak prompted by necessity or by the better life the child could have elsewhere, such as in the 1937 film Stella Dallas, directed by King Vidor and starring Barbara Stanwyck.
With the passage of decades and several waves of feminism, the topic has taken on new dimensions, and has been developing its own niche in literature and film, according to Amanda Hess, critic at large for the New York Times, who discusses a spate of recent offerings—films, series, and novels—that explore the implications of mothers leaving children in order to seek their own fulfillment elsewhere. Unlike Nora, whose departure signals the end of the drama, the climax of her realization about herself and the hollowness of her marriage, these newer works see mothers leaving in light of later developments in their lives, which may be what Hess means when she writes that these works treat “the vanishing mother” with “respect.”
One of Hess’s examples is The Lost Daughter, released theatrically at the end of 2021 and then streamed on Netflix. The directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also wrote the screenplay, the film is based on the 2006 novella of the same name by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante rather famously maintains anonymity but reveals a great deal of her life in her books, it seems, which are generally taken to be at least semi-autobiographical. (Gyllenhaal has kept the Greek setting of the book but changed the nationalities of the main characters from Italian to English and American.)
Leda Caruso, a middle-aged professor of English background who teaches comparative literature in Cambridge, Boston (suggesting Harvard), begins an idyllic working vacation on a Greek island. Despite the deliciousness of the sun, the surf, the sand, the view from her pleasant rental, there are almost gothic elements to this scene, signs of trouble to come. A mournful foghorn and intermittent glare from a nearby lighthouse, a beautiful and welcoming bowl of fruit rotten underneath, a large buzzing insect on her pillow. Much later, a worm crawls out of a doll’s mouth, as if in a horror movie, and by then the film has indeed become dark and disturbing.
When a large, extended Greek American family with relatives in the nearby town takes over the beach, Leda is particularly drawn to a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter Elena, about six or so, and their sunny enjoyment of each other. This unleashes her own mixed memories, some pleasant, some painful, of being a young mother with two small daughters trapped in an unsatisfying marriage some 20 years past.
A prickly first encounter with the clan is a sign that Leda is not the calmly composed woman she seems. Things turn warmer, especially when Leda is the one who finds the briefly lost Elena, but an air of unease and even unpleasantness prevails regarding the family, some of whom are boorish, belligerent, and foul mouthed. Then another “daughter” goes missing, that is, the little girl’s doll. This, too, reminds Leda of her own childhood doll, one that her mother gave her that she in turn gave as a special gift to her elder daughter, Bianca, who promptly wrecked it.
Through a complicated and dizzying interweaving of past and present, we learn that Leda abandoned her daughters for several years when they were about the age of Elena. Leda is marvelously rendered by Olivia Colman, who carries much of the film on her face and makes a believable person of a self-absorbed and not very likable character. Jesse Buckley skillfully plays the young Leda with brittle resentment, as her husband’s academic career takes precedence and the “crushing” responsibilities of home and children fall mainly on her. When an unexpected opportunity arises to advance her career and indulge in a passionate affair with another professor (Peter Sarsgaard), who finds her work “thrilling” (Yeats, Auden, mixed with some postmodern gibberish), she leaves, shades of Nora, slamming the door behind her.
Like Leda, Nina married young, was already a wife and mother in her early 20s, and is now close to the age of Leda’s daughters. She claims she’s happy, but tensions are apparent. Still, the relationship with her child seems good until Leda’s own actions mystifyingly begin to cause not just suffering but torment, especially for mother and daughter, and for the whole large family as well.
Leda did return, if not to her husband, to her daughters, and relations with them, with whom she keeps in touch by phone, seem cordial enough, if somewhat superficial. But when she speaks to Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker of the apartment she’s renting, or Will (Paul Mescal), the young Irishman in charge of the beach, it’s all about her daughters, not their comings and goings, which might be expected, but her ongoing assessments of how they related to her. “Martha grew up worrying about me…like a little mama. Bianca’s like her father. She made me feel like she wanted to remake me. Like her viciousness was for my own good.” Recalling the separation can make her weep even as she claims it was “amazing,” but the way she describes it doesn’t sound amazing to Nina. When she returned, it was not out of duty, but selfishness, she says, because she missed them, which can sound good until you think more about it.
The film has a European feel, the lengthy seashore vacation for one thing, the contemplative air, the extreme closeups, the camerawork—sometimes leisurely, sometimes jumpy—the rambling plot, the various encounters that lead nowhere, all of it absorbing enough but morally opaque and ultimately unsatisfying.
Leda’s own erratic behavior becomes hard to watch—one moment she’s erupting in fury and the next she’s dancing and singing ecstatically, all the while insensible to the pain she’s causing. When violence breaks out, it’s almost a relief, cracking her imperviousness and impassivity at least for a time.
The book ends ominously, but the film more brightly (unjustifiably), with Leda in touch with her daughters by phone and peeling an orange the way they used to love, in one long unbroken strip.
The Times’s Hess concludes of the various leave takings she examines that “the trouble is motherhood itself, and its ideal of total selfless devotion.” But with this film we see trouble in abandoning that ideal as well. Creating new life patterns centered on the self can also create new forms of unhappiness and cruelty. A generation of women that fervently wished to avoid the mistakes of their mothers (something the book brings out more clearly) is making worse mistakes of their own.