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If meta-layers were cake layers, Joanna Hogg’s superb bildungsroman The Souvenir would be one fascinating trifle. For starters, Hogg’s fourth full feature is a semi-autobiographical account of her time in a UK film school in the early 1980s. It centres around a complex relationship that resembles one she really had with a man at the time. Diaries were offered to actors to provide colour for their characters and the lead is played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, the daughter of Oscar winner and Hogg’s own lifelong friend Tilda Swinton—who plays the mother here. To top if all off, this is a film about filmmaking.
The Souvenir is no simple recreation of history, however. Hogg dives deep into the personal to create a moving meditation on growth through relationships that blends her past with fiction, offering a atmospheric statement on creative expression in the process. Like in previous efforts with former muse Tom Hiddleston, The Souvenir is another one of Hogg’s incisive takes on upper-middle class disconnection and emotional discord. The laborious, long takes and social realist stylings recall past works such as Archipelago but the grainy, gorgeous cinematic look and intimacy of the story make The Souvenir Hogg’s most rewardingly accessible and devastating film to date.
We follow Julie (Swinton-Byrne), a twenty-something film student living in a swanky London flat. She is supported by her wealthy parents, a mother and father who are the kind of people the British used to call—and perhaps still do in some circles—“landed”. When Julie falls heads-over-heels for mysterious older man and foreign office worker Anthony, her personal and university life begin to unravel as their affair becomes increasingly tempestuous.
While Hogg’s naturalistic approach is comparable to that of fellow English auteurs Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, her gaze is not placed on the working class. She tends to swap the kitchen sink for the drawing room. And no doubt Julie is privileged. Early on the character speaks of a strong desire to make a film about a disadvantaged boy living near the Sunderland shipyards but is all but rebuked by her liberal lecturers. She’s asked why she wants to make art so “removed” from her own reality and Julie’s unconvincing response is that she wants to makes it because it’s removed from her entitled life. As she endures her own hardships, Julie will see the value of drawing on her own experiences when creating art.
And those experiences come at her hard and fast, mostly via the difficult relationship in question. A deft, unassuming shot gives the game away. In the mirror we see Anthony’s reflection appear to walk into Julie before the reverse happens—these two are on a collision course. Or perhaps it suggests a part of Anthony will always be a part of Julie. Either way, it does not bode well for them when she opens a love note the moment the Chelsea Barracks bombings occurs in the distance.
Hogg and actor Tom Burke should be commended for their work together in creating Anthony. Burke inhabits the seemingly abyss-dark black of his trench-coat like a second skin. At times when he and the of warmly-dressed Julie embrace, we fear he might swallow her up. With his sneeringly received pronunciation, insistence on opera sound-tracking his life and over-reliance on the eyeroll, Anthony’s pretension is at risk of being intolerable. Burke’s gloomy charisma however, makes his presence oddly magnetic. Crucially, we never doubt why the sheltered Julie would be drawn to the smarmily erudite, older man.
For those concerned about the casting of a family friend, they need not worry. Swinton-Byrne is no nepotistic poser. She can play a character lacking confidence more confidently than most other young actors of her generation. Julie’s vulnerability is deeply felt in every moment, mostly thanks thank to the actor’s softly focused stare and irresistibly charming stammers. Swinton-Byrne goes from self-conscious idealist to embittered wreck with ease while ensuring Julie’s outward expressions of intelligence gradually burgeons as time goes on. As for Tilda, she delivers with understated perfection in a role which most likely required little research for her.
While The Souvenir is mostly set amongst the world of the well-off, it’s hard to argue that Hogg makes that world all that enviable. Lavish environments like upmarket tea-rooms and opulent dining spaces are presented to us with chilly austerity. Even a brief excursion to Venice is like more like a wrong turn down a dark alley. All of this compliments the frosty frigidity that develops between the leads. While these spaces aren’t inviting, the sumptuous, sterile photography makes it all more visually stimulating than anything Hogg has done before.
In the second hour the emotional turmoil becomes uncomfortably affecting and Swinton-Byrne’s performance enters genuine revelation territory. Anthony’s crueller actions would be considered gaslighting in today’s parlance as Julie’s student work suffers from his destructive behaviour. Many may grumble at her lengthy stay in an evidently toxic situation but credit should be given to a filmmaker who refuses to shy from the messy complexities of an unhealthy relationship. When it comes to both Julie and Anthony, Hogg scrutinizes as well as empathizes.
The Souvenir, it should be re-stated, is Julie’s tale before anyone else’s. Through the characters’ filmmaking, we see her put faith in her own story. Julie’s hardships begin to manifest in her art as she finally finds value in herself and her own experiences, but it comes at the cost of trauma. Joanna Hogg is, in her own way, doing something similar with The Souvenir. Like her lead, She too uses intimacies of her past to demonstrate that there is always something of the artist themselves in the art they make. And whether we want to admit it or not, there will always be something in the people we once loved remain in us.
A touching, towering achievement. Bring on part two and bring on The Souvenir cinematic universe.