‘The Souvenir’ is Emotional Ephemera

Joanna Hogg's semi-autobiographical "The Souvenir" is a fragile thing

click to enlarge Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in "The Souvenir" - AGATHA A. NITECKA // COURTESY OF A24
Agatha A. Nitecka // Courtesy of A24
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in "The Souvenir"

The early festival coverage of Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical new release The Souvenir paints the film as the story of a budding young filmmaker caught up in a new romance, the kind of affair that leaves a lasting impression. Hogg, a longtime friend of Tilda Swinton — who has a remarkably low-key supporting role in the film — had a difficult time finding an actress to play Julie, her stand-in. Fortuitously, she stumbled upon her lead, Honor Swinton Byrne, when she joined her mother during an early pre-production meeting.

Taking advantage of the casting of a mother-daughter duo playing similar roles in the film seemingly freed Hogg by allowing her to build upon that pre-existing intimacy. Opening up her own experiences were no doubt quite the challenge — the kind that most people would shy away from exposing on film. The Souvenir is a starkly frank portrait of a film student as a quiet young woman who doesn’t know if she has what it takes to be an artist. 

Julie takes pictures and has obviously thought about the story she wants to tell. It centers on the relationship between a man and his mother, his connection to the larger community where he lives, and how we hold on, sometimes longer than needed, to people and places. From the sound of things, Julie has spent quite a bit of time developing the idea, living with it in her head, but she stumbles and falters when forced to speak of it with others. She’s young and passionate, but not mature enough to trust herself or this passion.

She’s seeking focus and grounding, maybe, when she spies Anthony (Tom Burke) at a party. We see him, as she does, from behind; through her eyes, we appreciate his relaxed maturity. There is an ease and arrogance to him that is a mystery to Julie and it exerts an irresistible gravitational force over her. They talk briefly and later chat over coffee in a more formal setting. He presents himself as a more worldly figure, totally captivating her.

It is curious to watch the film though, as an older viewer with years of experience, because I found myself recognizing tells in Anthony’s behavior, undeniable warning signs that would have sent me running in the opposite direction. I critically pushed myself to attempt to submit to Julie’s perspective — releasing myself from the differences in race, gender and maturity — so that I could live and walk in her shoes. Every narrative — whether watched or read — seeks to spark this degree of suspension, but somehow The Souvenir presents a larger obstacle to overcome.

I now realize why. Hogg wrote the story and shot it with an uncluttered approach that seems poetic and rooted in documentary. Julie largely continues to live in her head and her infatuation with Anthony isn’t spoken of in flowery language or captured in rosy sentimentality. So much is unspoken, as if she can’t find the words or is afraid to give voice to her feelings. It’s as if Anthony will disappear or simply walk away from her and she will be lost and empty, with that faint artistic impulse torn from her.

All of this makes The Souvenir a tough film to sit through. Lacking the arch witticisms of early Whit Stillman indies like Metropolitan, Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco, viewers might long for cackling exchanges and the subtly implied class distinctions that positioned Stillman’s work as modern takes on Jane Austen. On the other hand, Hogg never surrenders to melodrama either, like Louis Malle’s deliciously juicy adaptation of Josephine Hart’s novel Damage with Jeremy Irons and a young Juliette Binoche. 

The Souvenir is a fragile thing, and Anthony, at one point, makes a similar connection and comment about Julie. She sees herself as ordinary and unexceptional, but Anthony tells her that she’s fragile. It is what makes her distinct, and it is also the exact trait that he zeroes in on and uses to insinuate himself into her life and her heart. 

Is someone this fragile capable of surviving the cruelties of the world? Perhaps more importantly, are we willing to walk alongside and share these early experiences with someone like Julie? In The Souvenir, Hogg and Byrne reveal the raw and uncut gem in the making. (Opens Thursday at Mariemont Theatre) (Rated R) Grade: B

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