Maggie Gyllenhaal has a theory that the mothers we see on screen tend to fall into one of two categories. First, there is the “fantasy mother”, who is perfect in every way, except when she e.g. have oatmeal on the shirt or run a little too late for a parent meeting. At the back is the “monstrous mother,” who either abuses her children or struggles with emotions that stifle her ability to be a parent; her story is based on making her more tasty to the viewers. Many movies that try to rehabilitate an imperfect mother, such as Woman under the influence and Terms of affection, has been directed by great artists, and these characters have been played by great actors. And yet, Gyllenhaal told me over Zoom last month, with such films, “you basically see the destruction of this powerful life force.”
The prodigal daughter, Gyllenhaal’s first film as a screenwriter, rejects this binary. The film, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel and now streamed on Netflix, follows Leda, a middle-aged divorcee who left her two daughters for three years when they were children. Her story is not easy to absorb. On a solo holiday, Leda (played by Olivia Colman) is possessed by a young mother and her child and steals – for reasons she herself does not understand – the girl’s beloved doll and overturns. the couple’s relationship. The novel “disturbed” Gyllenhaal when she first read it, but she resisted the urge to judge the character at its center. Instead, she investigated a provocative claim that Leda makes – “I’m an unnatural mother” – to create a film that challenges Hollywood’s frustratingly limiting portrayals of parenthood. “It’s a really brilliant line in the book, because what does that mean?” said Gyllenhaal. “What is an unnatural mother? But in reality the question it asks is, ‘What is one natural mother?'”
The answer can, as in Ferrante’s other works, be found in the precision and emotional depth of the protagonist’s inner monologues. Reading Leda’s thoughts, for Gyllenhaal, felt almost like being let into a secret: a woman could actually be neither a good mother nor a bad mother, but something in between. Leda embodies this ambivalence. She dwells on what her now-adult daughters think of her, ponders what to share about her past with her vacation buddies, and fantasizes about other directions her life could have taken without children. “I felt comforted knowing that these kind of darker elements of my experience I was not alone in feeling,” said Gyllenhaal, himself a mother of two.
In his adaptation – the first English-language film based on a Ferrante work – Gyllenhaal aimed to invite the audience to inhabit Leda’s perspective and appreciate her insights. “It’s a dangerous thing to ask, to relate to this person,” Gyllenhaal said, noting the undeniable cruelty of stealing a child’s favorite toy. “She have to take the doll, but then the real challenge Can you stay with her?Viewers at early screenings questioned the character’s actions; one wondered if Leda had to steal the doll. Even Ferrante, the thinker behind the famous Neapolitan novels, has said that getting into Leda’s head was like “going out into dangerous waters without a lifeguard.”
But for Gyllenhaal, the story reveals the myth of the “natural mother”. Filming about parenting depicts the exhaustion that comes with the task, but the bond between a mother and her child typically proves to be unbreakable and sufficient motivation to overcome any fatigue. Gyllenhaal saw Leda as a fascinating exception: someone who can embrace and resent the job of caretaker to an equal degree – and yet is worthy of compassion. “When we’re young, we have to believe because our survival depends on the fact that our parents and perhaps in particular our mothers … do not want more than to be our mother, ”Gyllenhaal explained. “But the adult parts of ourselves must know … it’s overwhelming.” Leda actively tests society’s definition of a mother – she loves her daughters, but she cannot devote herself to them – and for that she bears both pride and shame. She feels, Gyllenhaal said, “the real despair, the real anxiety, the real horror that comes with being alive.”
Given its dissuasive premise and formidable protagonist, The prodigal daughter was already a thorny novel for Gyllenhaal to adapt. But Ferrante’s language also proved to be a challenge: Leda’s narrative flows in fever dream-like cascades of text, her mind flowing from outbursts of memories to meandering thoughts to colorful dreams to worldly parallels about her vacation. To translate it into screen, Gyllenhaal had to find his own visual vocabulary.
It began by draining Leda’s memories of a series of live flashbacks, in which the younger Leda is played by Jessie Buckley, essentially mixing two films into one. Buckley and Colman never worked together to create their respective interpretations of the same nature at 20-year intervals, and Gyllenhaal did not intervene to advise them to cooperate. “It was probably the biggest risk of the adaptation,” she told me about the decision not to impose consistency on the character from the outside. “In a movie that’s about trying to be as truthful and as honest as possible, I’ll never cheat the audience.”
But after committing to cast Buckley and Colman, Gyllenhaal realized that any contrast in their portrayals would only motivate viewers to engage in Leda’s transformation. She went on to encourage her actors to find Leda on their own, telling Buckley, for example, that she was welcome to bleach her hair blonde if she felt like it; after all, a woman’s haircut can change dramatically over the course of a lifetime. “The difference between them actually really serves the film,” Gyllenhaal explained. “The life that this woman had to live between being 28 and 48 is a really complicated, interesting life. And you’re going to imagine going from being Jessie Buckley to Olivia Colman, you know? ”
When it came to Leda’s musings on motherhood, Gyllenhaal chose to repeat the character’s internal tug of war by changing tones. Sometimes, The prodigal daughter plays like a horror thriller – the rays of a nearby lighthouse flood Leda’s hotel room and cast ominous shadows around Colman – while for others it feels like a romantic drama. Gyllenhaal bathes the young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), in a warm glow while she and her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), play with the doll. The camera lingers, as through Leda’s eyes, on Nina’s body, while Elena pours water on her mother’s skin, mimicking what she does with her toys – images that convey Leda’s awe for, and perhaps even desire for, their bond.
Much of the story is told in charged glances and gestures rather than in dialogue or voice-over, which helps prevent Leda from being characterized as “crazy” for her perceived misdeeds. “There are aspects of us all that are intolerable and vicious, that are unkind,” Gyllenhaal explained. “This fantasy that … those parts of ourselves must not be expressed puts us in a box about our own relationship with the world.” Buckley’s younger Leda shifts from radiating tenderness to glorification towards her daughters in the same scene. Just before she leaves them, she peels an orange into one long thread – like a “snake”, as the three call it – and fulfills a quiet ritual and an act of upbringing that only they share. And then she barely looks at them as she leaves the room and for years their lives.
A minor story might have tried to bring completion or something resembling redemption to Leda. But that’s not how Ferrante’s novel ends, nor is it how Gyllenhaal’s film that changes the final scene does. In fact, Gyllenhaal Leda’s narrative gives a graceful surrealistic bend in its last moments, a bold choice inspired by films like Hal Ashby’s Be there and Federico Fellinis Cabirien’s nights, which connects Gyllenhaal’s cinematic approach back to Ferrante’s inner language. “The movement of this film, the right path to follow, is not whodunit or what’s going to happen because she [took the doll] … That genuine movement, “said Gyllenhaal,” is in her mind. “
The prodigal daughter, in other words, is a daring – a daring for the viewers to visit the thoughts of an “unnatural mother”, put judgments aside and stay for a while, like a tourist alone on a beach in a foreign country, and resolve his personal feelings out. Maybe these guests will get away from the movie unchanged. Or maybe they will find solace in getting to know a woman like Leda, just like Gyllenhaal did. “I’m a different person after making this movie,” she said. “I certainly put on some heavy weights that I carried around.”