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8 December 2021updated 04 Apr 2022 7:00pm

“True cinema trusts in images”: Elena Ferrante on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter

The Italian novelist considers the new adaptation of her dark seaside tale.

By Melissa Denes

What’s the worst thing a mother could do? It’s a question that haunts all Elena Ferrante’s novels, but in her third, The Lost Daughter, it becomes the central, obsessive theme. Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old professor of comparative literature, takes an apartment by the sea for the summer, where she tries to work and reflects on her relationship with her two daughters. Did she fail them? Does she care?

In the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, Leda is played by Olivia Colman and (in flashback) Jessie Buckley, who together capture something of the book’s strangeness and violence: the jagged edges of motherhood, its moments of cruelty and rage. This is Ferrante’s first English-language film adaptation, and Gyllenhaal’s script is both strikingly faithful to the book and more thriller-like in its structure, winning the best screenplay award at this year’s Venice film festival. The director takes greater licence with her cast, a sometimes distractingly starry line-up that also includes Dakota Johnson, Normal People’s Paul Mescal, Ed Harris and Peter Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal’s husband).

It is no small feat to take a book that is heavy on metaphor, on the fever dreams of an unreliable narrator, and make them real. (Gyllenhaal has said that when she first read the novel, she thought, “How exciting and dangerous”, and began to write Ferrante a long letter.) In middle age, Leda becomes fixated by a young woman (Johnson) holidaying on the same beach: she is a bad mother watching a good mother, who dotes on her daughter, who in turn dotes on her doll. When the little girl briefly goes missing, Leda steals the doll – buying it new clothes, pumping a belly full of sea water and a worm out through its mouth. The doll is a metaphor that recurs in Ferrante’s fiction – a rotten child, a lost daughter.

At only 140 pages, the book has a clarity and restraint that figures less in Ferrante’s later work. It can be funny, too, something Gyllenhaal and Colman lean into. Leda gives in to her most transgressive impulses: she walks out on her children; cheats on her husband without hesitation; steals from a child. But she feels no regret. “What a terrible thing. Why?” a woman asks Leda when she says that she left her daughters. “I was very tired,” she replies.

Gyllenhaal acquired the rights in 2018, and Ferrante wrote then that she would give her free rein: “We’ve been inside the male cage for too long – and now that that cage is collapsing, a woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous.” She would not give a male director the same freedom, she added. So I began by asking her how her relationship with Gyllenhaal played out.

***

In 2018, you wrote that “Maggie Gyllenhaal [is] an actor I love”. What did you know of her work, and how did you collaborate?

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After Secretary, I think I saw almost everything that came out in Italy, both her films and her television series. Maggie Gyllenhaal is great: she has a distinctive beauty, and her onscreen presence has the energy of intelligence. When I found out that she was interested in The Lost Daughter, I immediately thought she would do a good job. I was so sure that when I read the screenplay my only advice to her was not to let herself get trapped by the rules of genre (couple in crisis, thriller, horror), and to stick to a slightly slippery realism. It was too little, unfortunately, to initiate a more complex relationship, even if only epistolary.

You also wrote that Gyllenhaal was free to make The Lost Daughter her own – “even if she wanted to use it simply as a launch pad for her own creative impulse”. How faithful or creative has she been?

I generally avoid praising a film on the basis of its fidelity to the book. A good novel is elusive; as a film-maker you don’t ever really possess it, you only get an idea of it and you work on that idea. That, of course, doesn’t in the least justify those film-makers who think they can make of a book what they want. Prematurely underestimating the strategies of a novel often leads to such a mess that the result is disastrous, especially in terms of the narrative.

What, then, is a good film taken from a good book? It’s a film that picks up every impulse of the writing and finds a way of changing it into an image. The effort requires not faithfulness but invention and often betrayal. The goal is to get to the heart of the book, or at least the idea that the screenwriters and the directors have formed of it. If that is achieved, the most unfaithful film can turn out to be mysteriously close to the text. It’s what happened with Gyllenhaal. Her film seems scrupulously close to the book precisely because it has the faithfulness of betrayal: the most productive, amazing and difficult type of faithfulness, in life as well.

What did you most like about the film? Were there things about your own story that struck you differently?

To tell you the truth, I liked the whole film. Gyllenhaal makes true cinema: she trusts the images; there’s no voiceover to help the story along; the dialogue is allusive; the gestures are charged even if merely hinted at; the flashes of the past in the present are convincing; there’s an increasing tension that arises naturally from minor events. And then it’s wonderful how she can transform into a style of her own certain images from the book: the blinking of the beam from the lighthouse, the bowl of beautiful fruit that turns out to be rotten, the cicada on the pillow, the orange peel cut in the shape of a snake, the worm hidden in the doll’s stomach, and so on. Every movement of the characters is ambiguous, reveals and hides, hides and reveals. Thus the story flows and yet sinks into its dark sides, digs within. Yes, it’s a great job.

And there’s one moment – rather, two – that seemed to me to have a rare intensity. In the first, young Leda – Jessie Buckley, we shouldn’t miss the face she makes – admits to her bewildered, alarmed lover that her phone calls with her daughters bore her and bore them. In the second, the most terrible moment, Leda, played by the incomparable Olivia Colman, admits, weeping uncontrollably, that when she left her children she truly felt good. It’s the heart of the book, which on the screen, for me, strikes with an excruciating power.

[See also: Elena Ferrante’s world of interiors]

You’ve said this was a riskier novel than your others – that you were “venturing into dangerous waters without a life preserver”. Why? Have you reread it?

No. Since 2006, when it came out in Italy, I haven’t reread it. The first draft, if I remember correctly, goes back to the late Nineties. But I rewrote it many times starting in 2003; it seemed to me that I didn’t know how to get to the end of it. For a long time I’d felt the need to tell how a woman can with great suffering give up her own children and yet feel not guilty but light, fully happy. I wanted to describe how that feeling of joy didn’t go away, even when the woman returned home, defeated by her own contradictions, and sought a difficult equilibrium between motherhood and work. But the absurd thing was that I myself felt guilty as a narrator. I was uneasy because I was digging into that material, but the more I wanted to stop, the happier I was to go on.

The book is set in southern Italy; the film was shot in Greece, directed by an American, with an English lead and an international supporting cast. Was anything lost or gained in translation?

Well, the betrayals I mentioned consist in those things and others. Some for me as the author were painful. They could have led to a gross simplification of the narrative mechanism and, worse, to a lack of plausibility in the characters. But that didn’t happen. It seems to me that the film has a power distinct from the changes of location and the loss of its “Italianness” and “southernness”.

What did you make of Olivia Colman’s interpretation of Leda Caruso?

You know, when you’re writing, the characters have physical features that are definite yet changeable. Words define but also blur, and that’s one of the reasons that every reader makes the book his or her own personal book, and even the writer has in mind a text that corresponds very partially to the published text.

When cinema arrives, things get complicated in an obvious way. A film is made with bodies whose physical features are inevitably well defined. Writing and reading, on the other hand, skip some things, specify others and leave broad margins to the indeterminate. When it appeared that Gyllenhaal intended to make the film, I have to admit that I thought: she’ll be a great Leda. And yet when I heard about Olivia Colman, whom I really love, I was pleased, and I gradually detached Gyllenhaal and cautiously attached Colman. I did it as a test, now and then, waiting for the film.

Today I can say with complete confidence that Colman is the true strength of the story told in images. If the flashbacks flow so naturally, it’s not only because Buckley is very good but because Colman gives Leda a complex inner world, and there’s no thought or feeling or memory that doesn’t flicker even just for a fraction of a second – before or after the eruption of the past – on her face, in her eyes, her gestures. Yes, she’s an extraordinary Leda.

Did any other performances stand out for you, or surprise you?

Jessie Buckley: she melds with Colman and has memorable moments – not to mention very difficult ones – with the two children. But really, I’m happy with all of them. Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman are especially moving in the scene where Leda gives Nina the pin.

Have you watched any of your work in the cinema with others? Is there a part of you that wants to say publicly, “I did that!”, as one of your characters might, against their better judgement?

It’s a recurring experience. It happened the first time more than 25 years ago, when I saw the film that Mario Martone made from my novel Troubling Love. Seeing it was extremely moving – it was my first experience with cinema – and I was very happy, and proud of the result. I liked the fact that the film originated in my work, and I often boasted about it with friends and family. But no more.

One difference from the book is the absence, in flashback, of Leda’s mother and their difficult relationship. Did you miss that?

In the allusive style that Gyllenhaal chose, the fleeting references to the mother, and the doll the mother gave Leda, seemed to me sufficient. However, I did miss the difference between Leda’s two pregnancies, one easy, one difficult; and an emphasis on the happy moments with the children; and the family friend who does everything to seem like a perfect mamma, humiliating Leda; and the curt sentence that ends my story: “I’m dead but I’m fine.” But the film already lasts for some two hours, and it’s very good as it is. The dark, violent background of motherhood still emerges forcefully.

[See also: The haunting of Hilary Mantel]

The story centres on a missing doll, which is also a recurring motif in the Neapolitan novels. Where does the image come from?

I think I played with dolls for too long. Even at around 13 I found it hard not to feel that they were alive, it was hard to separate from them. Their symbolic meaning is complex, and probably operating while I write, I don’t know. But in my stories dolls are really what they were for me as a child: not toys but my daughters, my friends, my enemies, sometimes my mother herself, reduced to obeying me.

Netflix is also adapting your most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults, to be filmed as an eight-part series in Naples. Will you be involved?

My role is to read the screenplays and intervene if I feel the need. In almost all the cinematic works taken from my books I’ve done that, and it’s quite demanding. Sometimes I’m satisfied with the work of others, sometimes I’d like to write and rewrite it all myself, from beginning to end. But – I want to emphasise this – I don’t stand guard over my novels, and often I myself suggest moments that aren’t in the books; in fact, I wish there were more invention.

What I can’t accept is for my text to be turned upside down without good, convincing reasons, and then I insist, but mainly because I fear for the success of the film version. My notes are in general scrupulously painstaking and very frank, owing not so much to my nature as to my insecurity.

Working on screenplays is not what I do; I agree to it because I am curious and because I’ve always been passionate about the cinema. I quickly realised, maybe even from the start, that basing your expectations on the screenplay is risky. You have to wait to see the film. The moment of the rough cut is what I’m most afraid of, when I’m most depressed, when I’m most excited.

But I want to say that if I’m a big nuisance when I collaborate on a screenplay, if something can enchant me as a viewer I will be enchanted, and I’m generous to a fault. The directors I’ve worked with so far – and it’s always been satisfying – know this: Mario Martone, Saverio Costanzo, Alice Rohrwacher, Daniele Luchetti. The moments I love most – unfortunately rare – are those where the film erases the book from my mind and I become the viewer, spellbound by what’s on the screen, in love with the cinema as I have been my whole life.

Answers translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. “The Lost Daughter” is in cinemas from 17 December and on Netflix from 31 December

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special