A month into its release, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s atmospheric adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter has received praise for “consider[ing] women’s lives in intimate detail and in the light of wide-ranging, deep-rooted experience” (The New Yorker) and empathizing with “a type of woman whose needs are rarely addressed in American mainstream movies” (The New York Times).
Despite the text’s “unlikeable” protagonist, The Lost Daughter’s rawness about the unpleasant elements of motherhood wasn’t a concern for Gyllenhaal when making the movie—in fact, it was a draw. When asked by an interviewer for Deadline whether she was worried about how people would respond to some “pretty taboo things about parenting” in the film, Gyllenhaal responded,
That was part of my incentive for wanting to make it, was, OK, it’s one thing to read these incredible Ferrante books, alone in my room; it’s still in a cone of silence. She’s telling the truth, and you’re, “Holy shit, did you just say that out loud?” I didn’t even know I thought that. I wish that’s something I didn’t think, but in fact it is something I think. And it’s kind of terrifying and very comforting at the same time. But still, I’m alone in my room with a book . . . I thought, what would happen if you actually heard these things said out loud, if you actually saw them? And what if that could happen in a communal space, so that the secret is 100 percent out of the bag? And you’re sitting next to your mother or your husband or your daughter or your best friend? I thought that could be a really radical thing to do . . .
I do think women make movies differently than men. Even tiny things. One of my favorite parts in the whole movie is when we’re super close on Jessie, and she’s just come out of the conference with the professor, and she says, “I haven’t even read his recent work.” She says, “It was all my own idea. It was all my own thinking.” But before that, she’s taking her bra off under her shirt and unbuttoning her skirt and taking the pins out of her hair. Just tiny little details. But if you’ve been in that outfit all day, going to conference after conference, that’s what happens when you get home. And even those little moments of truthfulness I think are valuable because we see them so rarely. Whereas for men, who’ve made most of the movies in the world, those kinds of little details are in them all over the place because that’s their experience.
Ferrante herself agrees: when Gyllenhaal originally wrote a letter to Ferrante asking to adapt the novel, Ferrante said she could only on the condition that Gyllenhaal directed it herself. “It’s important for me—for [Gyllenhaal], for all women—that her work be hers and turn out well,” Ferrante wrote in The Guardian. “Being co-opted into the long, authoritative tradition created by men should not be the cost of making art.”