Film Review: The Souvenir

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

With A24’s seemingly unstoppable success, the film studio is set to hit theaters this summer with Sundance darlings “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “The Farewell,” as well as Ari Aster’s sophomore “Midsommar.” The first of the bunch to arrive on May 17, “The Souvenir,” is already being hailed as a dramatic masterpiece, and director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiography is certainly that. It’s an experience like no other — a slowly built, sensitive, and deeply intimate work that explores the artistic process of memory reconstruction, disguised as a toxic relationship.

“The Souvenir” begins with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker, based on a younger Hogg, discussing her first student film project that’s set in Sunderland, a poor English port city. She has a vision of making films beyond the privileged bubble of British society in which she was raised, but given the countless pitches she’s made to condescending film school professors and even strangers at the many parties thrown at her posh apartment, it’s clear that she doesn’t know how. With her underdeveloped artistic sense, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an older Foreign Office worker who becomes something of a mentor and lover. As the two begin their relationship, going out to extravagant restaurants and taking spontaneous trips to Venice, but dysfunction arises when a dinner date with a filmmaker friend reveals that Anthony is addicted to heroin.

With so much of the film shot within confined space, both in the domestic space of Julie’s home and the interiority of public setting, the film implicates the viewer in a position of impropriety that feels almost inappropriate to be given access to. Invading this intimate space and time in Julie’s life, Hogg captures innocent bed scenes between Julie and Anthony and shots of the dinner table with Julie writing her screenplay. Combined with the heartbreaking moments spent with her mother (played by Byrne’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton) at the film’s end, there is so much exposure of Julie’s life that it feels at times in excess. In this way, the film parallels Julie’s uncertainty with its own narrative trajectory — at first, not sure if it wants to be a coming-of-age story, a satire on the artifice of bourgeois sociality, or just a random assemblage of events in Julie’s life. As a reconstruction of Hogg’s memories, the film feels at once jumbled and disaffected: Hogg rarely tells us how to make sense of all the sequences she’s given us. Yet, as Julie finds direction for her film through experiences of loss and heartbreak, so does the film itself.

At its core, then, “The Souvenir” is about a toxic relationship experienced in the throes of youth and at a critical period of self-discovery. But it’s the realization of the film’s relationship to memory that makes it so much more than just its memoir and narrative material — Hogg herself stated in an interview with “Rolling Stone” that she was much less interested in plot than she was in “the experience of time, the experience of becoming a filmmaker.” It is in this way, the consideration of the film as a memory-making project, as a filmmaker attempting a reexamination of this traumatic moment in her life, that the film can truly be appreciated as a work of complete mastery. It’s both mindful of its diegetic material, as a sensible portrait of the messiness of young love and drug abuse, but like Hogg says, “it’s so much more than just a memoir.” This is film at its most personal. This is film as an experience.

Hogg displays her directorial style with interwoven documentary footage and static shots of the rarely seen exteriority of the countryside captured outside the set of Julie’s film, accompanied by beautifully written interludes of poetry presented by Julie’s voiceover. Hogg’s mindfulness towards everything put into the film shows through every moment of the final product. She cast the role of her mother, already having Tilda Swinton in mind — the two had been lifelong friends and Swinton had known Hogg’s mother since they were children. Hogg revealed in the same “Rolling Stone” interview that it wasn’t until two weeks before production began that Hogg found the actress for her younger self in a chance encounter with Swinton’s daughter, Byrne. Hogg provided Byrne with “old journals, books of photographs and reams of notes” taken from her own time as a film student preparing for a project on Sunderland. She also withheld information from Byrne, including Anthony’s addiction and a collection of intricate notes on the characters’ thoughts to extract the most authentic performance as possible from Byrne, who had no prior acting experience.

But Byrne works with Hogg’s material fantastically, delivering a truly stunning performance. She carries with her a youthfulness that is so full of uncertainty and awkwardness that you have to want more than anything for everything to just be okay. Even opposite Swinton, who still dominates every scene they share, Byrne holds her own as the timid Julie, as she tries to sort the mess of her youth out.

“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 in its retrospectiveness. A24 is already working with Hogg to produce a sequel that follows Julie’s experience of recovery following the events of the first installment. Although production has yet to start, with Byrne and Swinton reprising their original roles, and Robert Pattinson reportedly on board, it couldn’t come any sooner.

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

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