Film Review: “The Souvenir” — A Painful Past, Plainly Presented

By Cassidy Olsen

Verisimilitude is rarely a meaningful measure by which to judge a film, but The Souvenir is obsessed with exploring the line between documentary and narrative, reality and art.

The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Screening at Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, and Kendall Square Cinema.

A scene from “The Souvenir.”

As its title suggests, Joanna Hogg’s latest film, The Souvenir, comes from out of the past, a version of a memory that’s been carefully preserved, hidden away so that its value is not marred by repeated exposure. This is more than a metaphor — the movie, which follows film student Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) through her first tumultuous relationship in London in the early 1980s, is autobiographical for Hogg, an English writer-director whose immense critical success has already landed her first three films in the Criterion Collection.

Verisimilitude is rarely a meaningful measure by which to judge a film, but The Souvenir is obsessed with exploring the line between documentary and narrative, reality and art. Ironically, Hogg’s proximity to the material explains both the film’s greatest strengths and most frustrating weaknesses. By carefully presenting the most transformative, difficult relationship of her youth via an oblique, matter-of-fact style, Hogg makes The Souvenir beautiful yet cold, more of an interesting psychological experiment than a successful narrative film. The movie’s realistic dialogue, delivered delicately by Tom Burke and largely improvised by Swinton-Byrne, seems to be at odds with Hogg’s direction, which veers so far away from nostalgic that it becomes almost clinical, leaving the significance of Julie’s experience unexplored.

This distant style is not new for Hogg, but has been used to greater effect in her previous films, including her very first feature, Unrelated (2007). The static shots, long takes, and absence of musical scoring in Unrelated give the sweeping Italian vistas and psychological complexity on display room to breathe, as lonely, aging Anna (Kathryn Worth) finds herself drawn to a group of teenagers on holiday. The film is firmly inspired by the work of greats like Ozu and Rohmer; yet it never feels derivative while the sexual tension manages to be both matter-of-fact and deeply moving. The Souvenir draws similar inspiration from Ozu — Julie is even writing a movie about a working-class boy obsessed with caring for his mother, which recalls Late Spring — but never introduces the erotic tension or joys of flirtation that enliven Unrelated. Julie and her secretive beau Anthony (Burke) seem just to fall together; their falling apart is dramatized (such as it is) through an oddly-curated collection of moments.

The pair meet at a party at Julie’s London flat, a spare yet distinctly posh place that could only belong to an art student from a wealthy family. Julie is embarrassed by her wealth, but no more than she is by everything else — her film, her opinions, her hair. She’s 25 and deeply insecure, which makes her the perfect victim for the charms of Anthony, a worldly, judgmental man about ten years her senior. Anthony claims he works for the Foreign Office — whether he actually does remains a mystery. He has the fine clothes and photos and ideas to prove he’s lived a life. There’s no courting, or even a real first date or first kiss — one day the pair is discussing her film at a restaurant, the next Anthony is sleeping in Julie’s ornate bed and meeting her parents. This matter-of-fact approach is refreshing at times, yet deeply confusing and unsatisfying at others.

From the perspective of everyone other than perhaps Julie, Anthony’s treatment of her could best be described as bullying. Whenever she hesitates in her speech, he eviscerates her, questioning her judgment, critiquing her character, and winding her into traps where she ends up apologizing for nothing. “Stop torturing yourself,” he tells her when she asks about his ex-girlfriends. “Stop inviting me to torture you.” It’s all classic abusive boyfriend behavior, but when Anthony begins asking Julie for money and behaving erratically himself, it becomes obvious that something more desperate is there — specifically, he’s a heroin addict.

The Souvenir thus becomes a movie that touches on addiction, but it is never truly about addiction. Yes, we see Anthony struggle, get sober, withdraw, and relapse, we see him gaslight Julie into thinking she’s at fault, we see him steal. But the film never penalizes Anthony for his addiction, or suggests that his personality has been shaped by by his disease. Moreover, thanks to Hogg’s deep alignment with Julie, the movie stays firmly planted in her psyche and struggle as a partner to someone she can’t help; the character is both loving and angry, tender and afraid. This is where The Souvenir shines — in its depiction of how Julie processes her time with Anthony, and how it affects her art and her other relationships.

Unfortunately, Julie is never given more than a few fleeting moments of reflection. The camera is always on her, but only in the final moments of the film is anything revelatory said about her journey, and that feels too little too late — as though Hogg believes that by interrogating her experience it will somehow make it less real. This standofishness is never the fault of Swinton-Byrne however; she gives a lovely, largely improvised performance as Julie. Although she’s the daughter of the inimitable Tilda Swinton, who gets her own screen time in The Souvenir as Julie’s kind mother, Swinton-Byrne is new to acting. Her performance flips between theatrical and refreshingly unrehearsed. (When she brushes her hair aside to reveal a sly smile, she looks an awful lot like a young Keira Knightley.)

Art buffs will note that The Souvenir is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover onto a tree. Anthony takes Julie to see the painting early in the film. The picture inspires her first major project in film school, after she abandons her idea for the story about the shipyard boy obsessed with his mother. And while The Souvenir replicates the distinctive composition and quiet beauty of its namesake, it’s unlikely to inspire the same aesthetics feelings of enduring adoration and fascination. That’s an awfully high bar but, from a talent like Hogg, it is not an unrealistic expectation.

Cassidy Olsen is a film critic, food editor, and screenwriter working in Cambridge, MA. A recent graduate of English and Film and Media Studies from Tufts University, she currently holds editor positions at Reviewed, part of the USA Today Network, and Much Ado About Cinema, an international film blog. Cassidy also served as the Film Editor for the Improper Bostonian before the magazine’s demise in mid-2019. Her website can be found here.

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