The Souvenir - Review
Joanna Hogg’s impressionistic new film adds a healthy amount of rule-breaking to her dramatic style.
It would be easy to paint The Souvenir as a simple tortured romance. There are clear phases to the central relationship; hearts are changed, and young lovers grow into mature perceptors. But like her previous work, Joanna Hogg’s film is crafted to specifics, telling the story through direction as much as the written word. With a knockout performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (in her film debut), The Souvenir is a film with the density of a finely crafted novel.
Hogg’s camera placement has never been more crucial. Where Unrelated felt sparingly, but intentionally staged, the blocking here reflects the film’s themes while still allowing for glamorous shots. A scene with Julie (Swinton Byrne) and her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) sees them dancing in their living room, a wall-length mirror cutting the frame in half to create a split reflection. Julie’s plight is one many young lovers have experienced while finding themselves on the cusp of independence.
She attaches to a man far superior in intelligence, who happens to have a lot of opinions on her work. He contorts to fit her perceptions of himself, yet chastises her for having a notion of expectation when it comes to his actions. The facts are, he has a heroin addiction, and Julie is an extremely vulnerable film student with a desire to create; their match is full of witticisms and clever remarks, but they aren’t helping each other by staying together. When the couple appear trapped by the thralls of music, dancing, and a mirror, Hogg’s camera conveys a feeling of emotional stagnancy. Julie cannot move on, and Anthony, for some toxic reason, needs to be her better while also maintaining his deathly habits. They’re trapped within one another, which perhaps explains the frustration many seem to feel at Julie’s inability to move on.
Anthony is a likeable character. Burke’s performance is stellar, riddled with contradictions and soft-spoken condescension; all taken by Julie as fact. Her naivete is grounded in the film’s autobiographical nature, culled from the real-life experiences of Hogg as she explored film school as a young adult. Swinton Byrne is patient and tender in the role of Julie, though her maturity is often called into question. Anthony steals her jewelry to pay for drugs (and, if we’re to believe him, to keep her alive), and Julie does not leave him. Later, he suffers a breakdown caused from an overdose in Julie’s apartment. There is blood on the floor, and a scene later we see a panel of the wall-length mirror is cracked. Trapped in a relationship that only leads to fragmentation and anguish, it should need no explanation why Julie doesn’t leave Anthony: he is all she knows.
The Souvenir also touts the reunion of decades-old friends Hogg and Tilda Swinton. Their first collaboration since starring in Hogg’s college graduate film, Caprice, Swinton plays the mostly absent mother of Julie. Her presence on screen is as electrifying as every project she is accepting these days, but as Honor Swinton Byrne rises to the challenge, so does her mother. In the film’s final sequences we see a mother-daughter relationship defined by childhood; numerous stuffed animals line Julie’s bed; her mother worries for her as if they are still under the same roof, and a visit from Anthony results in two very separate rooms. This combines with a financial reliance on her mother, which explains Julie’s seemingly job-less existence. She’s an artist, a blooming one, at that, but a beginner, lacking the talent to step into herself right away and start making successes. She needs her mother, and from the looks of it, her mother needs her.
Hogg’s films have tackled social class in ways both subtle and obvious. In Exhibition we see a couple tearing at the seams, spurred by the decision to sell their beloved art-deco masterhouse. Their worries are allowed by an ever-present window, the comforting hum of a husband upstairs, or a city filled with enough people that at least one might be interested in taking Julie on as a student. None of the characters are overt, aside from Anthony, who flaunts a wealth I can only assume comes from drug money, but instead exude a kind of innocence that young (or entitled) rich people often do.
Joanna Hogg has never flexed her filmmaking muscles stronger than in The Souvenir. There are jarring uses of music that appear and disappear sporadically, and camera lenses often change mid-scene. There are brief interludes of Julie reading letters that double as statements to the audience. Costuming is wild, expressive, and the story jumps about to several high-expense locations; all this to say that Hogg’s once synonymous simplicity is now gone, though the intimacy produced from it remains. The Souvenir is a natural, bold leap in Hogg’s career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Having acquired the attention of coveted indie studio A24 and Martin Scorsese, a sequel is already in motion. It seems those behind the film are confident in its merit, and in Hogg’s ability to tell a story that doesn’t abandon her themes, but elevates them.