Dirt: The lost typeface
On Ferrante and fonts.
Daisy Alioto on The Lost Daughter film adaption and Helvetica (Bold) **SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**
The press around Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter emphasized its specificity. “I do believe there’s such a thing as women’s writing and women’s filmmaking,” Gyllenhaal told The New York Times. “This is really dangerous to talk about,” the director continued–handing the NYT their bizarre, clickbaity headline.
So this is not a universal film. Fine, that’s impossible. But could it be a film for 50% of the global population? Surely, that is also impossible. Cinematographer Helene Louvart’s lens doesn’t deviate though, focused as it is on daughters and mothers, mothers and daughters. To quote one woman in a loud party taking over the beach where our protagonist Leda (Olivia Colman) is sitting alone: “Guys, there’s a fucking person here.”
And what a fucking person she is. So I was surprised when the movie opened with Helvetica Bold splashed across the screen–the closest thing modern design has to a universal font. In the documentary Helvetica, designer Michael Bierut says, “Everywhere you look you see typefaces. But there’s one you probably see more than any other one, and that’s Helvetica. You know, there it is, and it seems to come from nowhere. You know, it seems like air? It seems like gravity?”1
Gyllenhaal alters some of the specificity of the source material by changing the location of the film from Naples to Greece. For me, this brought to mind another piece of content that has been compared to air: Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Gyllenhaal name checks the first book, Kudos, in her NYT interview.
This is the first time I’ve thought about Ferrante in relation to typeface, although her “obscenely bad” book covers were a talking point after they came out in English and their embrace of lowbrow “chick-lit” aesthetics has found approval on BookTok.
Cusk, however, is an author with a font. According to The Guardian, “Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat…” in her most recent book Second Place.
And there is something very Cuskian about The Lost Daughter on film. Maybe it’s the Americanos, the Eileen Fisher, the slightly winded man in denim explaining the moods of a lighthouse. Most likely, it’s the personal confessions.
“What I really want to consider, and I promise I’ll bring this back to Auden, is that which is not only ineffable but unthought in our paradigm,” says the professor with whom Leda will begin an affair at an academic conference. Here is a brief list of things the film touches on that are both ineffable and unthought in polite society:
A mother losing her child through carelessness
A mother willingly abandoning her child
A mother that regrets her child
A mother that is indifferent to her child
A mother taking a doll from a stranger’s child… for no reason
Gyllenhaal knows she is dealing in taboos. “I don’t want my mother to have been ambivalent,” she tells the NYT. In the words of typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler: “Helvetica maybe says everything, and that’s perhaps part of its appeal.” — by Daisy Alioto
The Dirt: The Lost Daughter is for women, but Helvetica is for everyone.
A sentiment that is delightfully close to Leda’s observation on breast implants: “They come from nowhere so what are they worth?”