In the opening of Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical drama, The Souvenir, we hear a young filmmaker outlining her first feature: a grotty working-class narrative set in the shipyards of Sunderland, a Northern England city. It isn’t exactly a world that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a twenty-four-year-old film student living in an affluent district in London, knows particularly well. Still, the warmth and intelligence we hear in her voice suggests that she could very well be tapping into her inner Ken Loach, in part because she seems aware of the potential challenges of doing so.
Set in the early 1980s, shot with the translucent harshness of Phantom Thread, and named after an 18th century rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir finds Hogg reaching into her own past in order to reclaim it as a certain present; it’s a somewhat disguised self-portrait that’s sketched with almost four decades of distance between its artist and her canvas, the time between then and now allowing Hogg to better appreciate how the lovesick girl we see on screen grew up to be the lauded filmmaker we feel behind the camera today. And to be fair, Julie is just one letter off from Hogg; not a direct recreation of the director’s younger self, but close enough that her London flat is a perfect replica of the one that Hogg lived in at that age (the set was built inside an airplane hanger, and the city views seen through the windows are 35mm projections of photographs that Hogg took in her twenties).
Honor Swinton Byrne & Tom Burke in The Souvenir
In the modern cultural discourse, questions of narrative ownership, stories of which an artist has the right to tell, seem to arise fairly frequently. We consume art in an era that prides itself on its inclusiveness and self-awareness and one that also likes to call out anything that might smack of inauthenticity or an outsiders privilege. But, as Hogg reminds us, such questions of an artist’s identity and intentions are nothing new. Certainly, they were essential to her own self-discovery as a filmmaker in the early 1980s, which is the period not only where this film takes place, but seemingly seeks to illuminate.
Julie is smart, soft-spoken and eager for new experience and, as previously mentioned, is a stand-in for her creator. And Hogg, in charting a particularly painful chapter of her heroine’s artistic and sentimental education, offers up a sharp but sympathetic self-critique. But she also directs that critique outward, toward a culture that expected women to lower their dreams, decisions and opportunities to those of men, in work as well as love. Much of which is seen in the judgmental gazes of her all male film professors. But her most pointed feedback comes from Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older gentleman with whom she quickly and recklessly falls in love. You might question her taste, even as you can see the appeal. Anthony, who works for the British Foreign Office, wears lovely pin-striped suits and bow ties and has an expensive taste in food and drink. He’s a self-styled intellectual, and when he speaks to her in a low, slow drawl that seems to be at a point of exhaustion, he seems both scornful of Julie’s youthful naiveté and genuinely taken by it.
On one of their first dates, Julie explains that while she isn’t making a documentary, she hopes to depict her characters and their working-class lifestyle as realistically as possible. Anthony comes back at her with a reference to the gorgeously stylized films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, stating how they’re “truthful without being necessarily realistic.” Later, he takes her up to the task by asking how deep her investment in her own artistic sincerity is, speaking as if it were all that mattered. And his statements have some points, but for someone who so disdains sincerity, Anthony is hiding a great deal behind his man-of-the-world panache. It falls to a fellow filmmaker (Richard Ayoade) to give the blunt truth about Anthony that Julie hadn’t allowed herself to consider. It’s a truth that bears what you may have suspected from the start, that the two aren’t exactly for each other. But it doesn’t stop The Souvenir from blooming into a near-perfect telling of an imperfect love story.
The Souvenir unfolds with the random flow of remembrance, hopping from one flashbulb memory to another with little regard for pace or structure. The moments are obvious why they might have a lasting impact on Julie’s life, but there’s often little rhyme or reason to why certain moments stick with people, and Hogg never ignores that fact for the sake of narrative convenience. Making this film really out of moments, some of which come and go with no clear purpose. Julie often spending time sitting at her desk trying to get out of her own head, while Anthony is often there with her, shuffling around the flat in a bathrobe carrying hostility in both hands. It’s in that flat where Hogg, as in her previous chamber dramas (Unrelated, Archipelago & Exhibition), likes to film her characters at a slight remove, using a stationary, unblinking camera that turns living spaces into inner worlds. It’s often remarkable how many angles she and cinematographer David Raedeker are able to locate within the white walls of Julie’s flat (all captured in glorious 16mm). Hogg lets scenes play out in unblinking long takes allowing complex emotional crosscurrents to build and erupt in plain sight.
Honor Swinton Byrne & Tilda Swinton in The Souvenir
Those eruptions in The Souvenir feel especially personal, and there is warmth as well as severity in its gaze. You feel that warmth most strongly in Julie’s scenes with her eternally supportive mother, in part because the latter is played by Swinton Byrne’s own real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, the most graceful gray-wigged scene-stealers. Tom Burke is achingly good as the lover whose droll witticism slowly turns to dust, as his arrogance recedes and the full depth of his need for Julie — financial, morally and emotionally — is laid shockingly bare. It’s a measure of how complicated Anthony is that he awakens your admiration, your fury and, finally, your protective instincts. That more or less sums up Julie’s initial response too, Swinton Byrne, in an extraordinary breakthrough performance, shows us a woman torn between desire and disgust, her disillusionment never quite overwhelming her compassion.
If The Souvenir seems to move assuredly to its own unconventional beat, it’s because Hogg isn’t telling a straightforward story; she’s showing us how an artist’s sensibility comes into being. Presumably, that sensibility will come into even clearer focus in the sequel that Hogg and Swinton Byrne are already working on (with Robert Pattinson joining them for this installment), the second piece in a two-part cinematic memoir. I’m extremely eager to see where the story takes Julie next, though also in awe of the remarkable place at which it has already arrived. Piercing in it’s honesty and emotionally wreaking in it’s subtly, The Souvenir is a mesmerizing memory piece on the impulsivity of young love and the reality of it’s imperfections, all through the lens of a dreamy intimacy.