THE SOUVENIR, UK / USA. Director: Joanna Hogg. Cast: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton. Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg. Language: English. Runtime 120 minutes. US Release date: May 17, 2019 (limited). Venue: Angelika Film Center, NYC, NY. Rating A +.
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is what I call an anti-romance, and an anti-mystery that in its own way propels its lead character into a discovery of herself, even if it comes at a hefty emotional price. This is not your run-of-the-mill romance even though it is dressed to perfection to look that way. Hogg also keeps a certain distance, reducing scenes to their bare essentials, to inflict a sense of observation of events at a near-documentary level without actually being one. That she is able to convey the sheer imbalance of the onscreen relationship and make the heroine, based in her own experience, come through, scars and all, is a true feat of a cinematographer who is able to perform a perfect marriage of knowing the material at hand and being able to convey the essence in a clear, tone-perfect voice.
The story at its basest level is one we have seen many times. Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne in her film debut, who happens to be the daughter of Tilda Swinton, also in the movie as her mother) is a naive young girl who aspires to be a cinematographer in 1980s London. She crosses paths with Anthony (Tom Burke), a dashing young intellectual who has the appearance of a romantic bad boy straight out of Lord Byron’s narratives. Julie can’t help but be taken in by the man, who is seductive, knows the power of words and manipulation, and reels her into a relationship that from the get-go shows all its cracks and warning signs. However, Julie, for reasons only she can recall, instead of saying no and walking out, inches in and receives Anthony with almost abject passivity, as if he was someone she was expecting.
What I found at first somewhat off-putting, then increasingly meaningful, was the way Hogg positioned her scenes, staged from a somewhat distant point of view, as if she herself was an observer through a time capsule and was trying to analyze what was transpiring through the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that is Julie’s and Anthony’s. How else would you look back to your own life and see the mistakes you made? Hogg never questions it, but simply, recreates it and lets Julie and Anthony clash. There is a distinctly lived-in quality to how they interact with one another. One can’t help but notice how close to life it evolves, and that makes for a visceral, uncomfortable viewing. How many of us have seen people who didn’t even look like they truly liked each other but somehow relied on the other for some form of gratification and whispered, “Why are these even together?” How many times have we met that person who was completely off, but we tossed logic out the window in lieu of ‘experience’? Julie does try to eliminate Anthony out of her life after he all but wrecks it and leaves her a mess, but inexplicably, he creeps back in for one last act of damage; when he’s gone, which is not a spoiler by the way — you know there is no other way for this to end but in a ripping of noxious ties — it comes off as a relief. The final shot, where Julie faces us, the audience, is priceless, and shows how much the character, who held a tenuous relation to herself, has finally come home.
Now, at a technical standpoint, Hogg could have trimmed some scenes from the finished product. At two hours and fractured narrative, The Souvenir does run its course and will test the patience of movie lovers. Compounding the lived in, almost lifted by the eyes of French director Eric Rohmer feel, there is a sensation one is watching a story set in the distant past. At no moment did I get a feel of the 1980s when the film transpires. My safe guess is that Hogg’s approach was to establish a timelessness to the entire package and thus cement it in a ground of repetition, where dysfunction happens, and when it does occur, it is almost casual — no flourish, no over the top drama, it just exists, and accrues little by little until the abuse of trust has become normalized. That, perhaps, led me to at first dislike the movie. It’s no wonder it bites, and does so with teeth a bit too sharp for its own good.
In terms of performances, Honor Swinton-Byrne is the early revelation of the year, and while her character often frustrates, she brings forth the evolution of Julie’s arc to its completion. Tom Burke is infuriating as the psychopathic Anthony — there were times I wanted to scream into the camera and drive him away from Julie. That speaks quite a bit of a performance. Tilda… well, shes Tilda. As for the film? It’s striking, confounding, unnerving, unsatisfying, frustrating, cold, observational, but also, a triumph of a diarist’s description of a problematic relationship with only one solution.