Film Review: The Souvenir

Film Review: The Souvenir

Director Joanna Hogg’s latest is a remarkable look at her own experience of toxic relationships and artistic development.

Waiting for her lover, a woman carves their names onto a tree. The image is a central point of Joanna Hogg’s masterful new film, presented on-screen in a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard from which the film takes its name. Its first appearance is a painful foreshadowing of a future scene, in which the same scenario is tragically reworked, this time reckoning with mortality after the wide scope of a tumultuous relationship. Part autobiography, “The Souvenir” is a hazy, elliptical portrait of a relationship and an artistic awakening, mediated by Hogg’s own process of memory construction. 

The film begins with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker as a surrogate younger Hogg, discussing her student film project set in Sunderland, a poor English port city. Ashamed of her privileged status, she has a vision of making films beyond the upper-crust bubble of British society in which she was raised, but it’s clear that she’s struggling to figure out how, given the exchanges she has between film school professors and strangers at parties. With an unclear artistic direction, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a seductive older Foreign Office worker at one of these parties. Anthony is arrogant but irresistibly sexy — he talks in a slow, drawn-out drawl, expressing his love for the films of Powell and Pressburger and challenging Julie’s “preconceived notions” of what a film is supposed to be. As the two embark on a relationship, Anthony becomes something of a mentor and lover, taking Julie out to extravagant restaurants and spontaneous trips to Venice. But in a moment of embrace, as finger strokes find way to bruised skin, romance catches up with reality and Julie must somehow reconcile her aspirations and being in love with an addict. 

At first, a seemingly uncertain assemblage of events in Julie’s life that flirts with coming-of-age thematics, the film feels somewhat jumbled and disconnected. Despite maintaining the formal precision present in all of Hogg’s films, “The Souvenir” owes this particular feeling of disconnect to Hogg’s signature lack of any solid script or storyboard — using rather a “story document” of specific shots, insights into characters’ psychologies, and sparse bits of dialogue, making room for improvisation and directing the film’s narrative progression along intuitive lines of affect, and of particular import to this case, the inspection of memory. At its core, then, “The Souvenir” is about a toxic relationship, experienced in the throes of youth and at a critical moment of artistic self-discovery. But through a remarkable cumulative effect of detail, combined with the distance that thirty years can afford, Hogg constructs an experience that’s not only incredibly emotionally honest and complex but also woven into a deeply personal process of memory reconstruction that makes it so much more than just its narrative material. From replicating the Super 8 and 16 mm film she used as a student and reconstructing the view outside Julie’s apartment from old photographs to casting Tilda Swinton, the lead in her first student film “Caprice,” as Julie’s mother, Hogg embeds memory itself into the film. 

As a director who has never been concerned with plot, Hogg has expressed in an interview with Rolling Stone her greater interest in “the experience of time, the experience of becoming a filmmaker.” It is in considering the film as a meditation on the indelibility of memory, done with the sensibility and maturity that Hogg has, that the film can truly be appreciated as a work of complete mastery. And it’s further in placing the film in the scope of Hogg’s career that makes the film so much more potent and alive. Heeding the advice of her professors, Julie abandons her Sunderland project and the decay of working class society in favor of something more personal. In her new art piece, an actress sits down and reads a few lines that evoke Julie’s experience with Anthony, grappling with mortality and the constant suspension in fear of possibly losing him at any moment. All of Hogg’s films, from “Unrelated” to “Exhibition,” have followed in this direction, each acutely critiquing the artifice of bourgeois sociality that Hogg grew up around. 

Joanna Hogg is a master at grasping interiority, both in the cramped and intimate spaces of Julie’s enviable apartment, as well as the psychological entrapments of being in love with someone struggling with addiction. Never shying away from the brutality of Anthony’s addiction, Hogg makes room for the beautiful moments — moments of Anthony’s praise and adoration for Julie, their slow dances in her living room, the letters he wrote to her, read softly through voiceover. Hogg gets closer to her characters than ever before: in one of the film’s most powerful moments, Anthony and Julie sit at the table — the table where they have sat countless times, sharing meals with friends and parents and discussing Julie’s work — and he assures that he is okay. Through the simple use of close-ups of Julie and Anthony, cinematographer David Raedeker achieves something so intimate and rich with feeling, so full of the actors’ emotion that there’s no denying the love shared between these two characters. With actors any less capable, the complexities of Julie and Anthony’s relationship would have easily been elided for a flattened and cliched narrative of addiction and abuse. 

Byrne and Burke are fantastic together, sharing a palpable chemistry that feels incredibly genuine and real. Byrne, in her first acting role, was cast after a chance encounter with Hogg, a longtime friend of Byrne’s mother Tilda Swinton, who was already cast to play Julie’s mother. Hogg provided Byrne a collection of her own journal entries and photographs from film school but withheld critical information regarding Anthony’s addiction to extract the most authentic performance possible from Byrne. Yet working with Hogg’s unique style, Byrne holds her own, even opposite the dominating presence of her mother, carrying with her a youthfulness that is so natural, so tedious and full of uncertainty that you want nothing more than for everything in her life to just be okay. 

“The Souvenir” is one of the best films of this year. Hogg has crafted an experience of film that is at once both heartbreaking and incredibly fond, an exercise in retrospection that manages to elide sentimentality while still being emotionally delicate. After the credits roll, it’s revealed that there’s a part 2 in the works, which according to Hogg, follows Julie’s experience of recovery following the events of the first installment. Production is slated to start this summer with Byrne and Swinton reprising their roles, and with Robert Pattinson reportedly on board, it couldn’t come any sooner. 


Grade: A+
Rated: R
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

Image courtesy of rogerebert.com.

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