A Bad Romance
In Joanna Hogg’s Brilliant ‘The Souvenir,’ a Young Woman Finds Herself Through a Misbegotten Affair
A young woman discovers her own self-worth through the lens of a bad romance in The Souvenir, a masterpiece of subtle devastation. Drawing on her own twentysomething experiences in 1980s Thatcher-era London, an older, wiser, and deeply empathetic Joanna Hogg, the film’s director, delivers a revelatory account of how relationships inform identity. We are the sum of our experiences, and even corrosive ones can leave indelible marks that make us stronger. If we can survive them.
THE SOUVENIR ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Joanna Hogg
Written by: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Running time: 119 min
Hogg’s dazzling film is a semiautobiographical memento mori of her youthful moribund love affair. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), an insecure grad student from a wealthy family, spends her days at film school and lives in a posh Kensington duplex a stone’s throw from Harrods. Her ambition is to make a documentary about the dying shipyard industry in Sunderland. Her teachers are rightly skeptical, as is her new boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke). “I think they’re very truthful, without necessarily being real,” he says about non-fiction films, in one of his many dismissive remarks to Julie and her chosen profession.
Anthony is an erudite cynic a few years her senior who speaks with commanding Oxbridge certainty. But his past is mysterious at best. She finds a photo of him in a turban, marked “Afghanistan, 1973.” He says he works for the Foreign Office. She doesn’t question it.
His behavior passes as aristocratic, but a glimpse of his warm, unassuming parents shows how much Anthony seems to reject his earthier roots. When Julie takes him to meet her parents, her landed-gentry father might even sense the posturing. As they chat about their shared university alma mater, the father regales him with his own memories and clearly couldn’t care less about Anthony’s. As they dine, Julie’s dad condemns the IRA’s actions, while Anthony points out violence on both sides. “It’s terrrrribly complicated,” chirps Julie’s mom (Tilda Swinton), the dutiful wife who tries to referee but dare not contradict her painfully patrician husband.
The women are clearly smothered, although Julie is trying her best to emerge. Her attempts at filmmaking are so unsure. Her cast and crew shoot sideways glances at each other as she knocks into a lighting set-up. Over time, though, as she processes Anthony’s betrayals, Julie starts to show real mettle.
The filmmaking is supremely quiet. Mirroring Julie’s diffidence, the story is hinted at, inferred, intuited. This is deeply felt, deeply discreet storytelling. We see the lead-up or the aftermath of an event. Or hear it described. Never the event itself. A burglary is presented as a fait accompli, not dramatized in the act. And Anthony’s own self-inflicted, self-destructive lacerations are never really evident until it’s too late. That may sound coy, but it’s also quite apt.
There’s a pardon-me-I’m-British sort of understatement to the film, but it’s more than that. Hogg has developed this signature cinematic style in sparkling gems like Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition. She doles out information in ways that feel askew, off-kilter. You’re catching up in the most delightful way, puzzling out the narrative flow as Hogg keeps unveiling one more delectable morsel after the next. Her approach wonderfully rewards repeat viewings. Watching The Souvenir initially felt both dizzying and intoxicating. The second time I saw it, my comprehension of the story was more sober. And yet the film’s full range of emotions left me doubly besotted.
Hogg does make some cheeky on-the-nose music selections in The Souvenir. From Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” the admittedly prime period choices seem almost aggressively commenting on the mismatched pair. Even Bronski Beat pleads with her, “Run away, turn away, run away.” Julie has her own Greek chorus, courtesy of Top of the Pops.
The condescension, the belittling, the dismissive attitude from the men in Julie’s life are jaw-dropping. The causal cruelty of the patriarchy! And yet The Souvenir is the product of a wiser, clear-eyed, and, above all, empathetic filmmaker. Anthony’s pinstriped suits, striped dress shirts, and bowties are his armor and his con. Above all is his overbuttoned overcoat, conveying a child’s sense of adulthood straight out of the Little Prince. Their sumptuous trip to Venice feels like make-believe, because it is. Anthony is risible in so many ways. But you start to care about him, and understand why Julie keeps tolerating his bad behavior and lending him £10 notes he’ll never pay back.
“I’m trying to work out where you two tessellate here,” says a mutual friend (Richard Ayoade, in a wicked cameo). It’s a fair question, one that Hogg answers over the course of the curdled couple’s history, as she shows the many ways in which maturity and insecurity forever collide.