A Passionate Romance, Remembered Dispassionately: ‘The Souvenir’
By Mark Jenkins
Anthony (Tom Burke) and Julie (Honor Swinton Burne) navigate a toxic romance in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.
Nearly every piece of The Souvenir is a scrap of writer-director Joanna Hogg’s own life, and yet this intriguing film feels distant. Hogg’s confessional memoir draws you in, while her clinical style pushes you away.
A few details have been changed. The protagonist, a 24-year-old London film student, is called Julie, not Joanna. But she’s played by Honor Swinton Byrne, the filmmaker’s goddaughter. And the actress’ on-screen mother is her actual one, Tilda Swinton, who was Hogg’s boarding-school classmate more than 40 years ago. They’re almost as close to the events as the director herself.
Hogg does little to place the story in time, although Britons of a certain age (and well-informed Anglophiles) will pick up some hints. The post-punk songs heard at parties in Julie’s Knightsbridge flat — actually, her wealthy parents’ in-town place — are from mostly the early 1980s.
Later, the action is tied to a specific date, when Julie hears an explosion at the grand Victorian building across the street from her home. It’s the Dec. 17, 1983 IRA bombing of Harrod’s department store, although no one in the film ever specifies that. The Souvenir is as keen on mystery as intimacy.
Julie is pitching a movie set in Sunderland, an economically depressed shipbuilding city that is, in every way, far from her own life. In the process, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a junior Foreign Office bureaucrat who’s about a decade older.
Anthony is smart, cultured, and a bit arrogant. He takes Julie to the Wallace Collection, a venerable London house museum, to see the Fragonard painting that lends the movie its title. It’s a portrait of a young woman (named Julie, by some accounts) who’s enchanted by the letter she’s just received from her beau.
Soon, Anthony has moved in with Julie.
The man has expensive tastes, but is always short of money. Julie — or, rather, her parents — is a steady source of cash. One evening, several of Anthony’s friends come to dinner. Among them is an opinionated filmmaker (played by actual filmmaker Richard Ayoade) who tells Julie just what Anthony’s problem is.
A less naive girlfriend would have already figured it out for herself. And a more assured one would banish Anthony long before he finally departs the storyline.
Julie has little excuse for her cluelessness, but viewers do. Hogg doesn’t explain much, aside from the occasional winking song cue. (Sunderland elicits Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding,” and Julie and Anthony’s romance commences to Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”). The director seems to prefer that viewers share Julie’s bewilderment.
Shot almost entirely on sets, The Souvenir achieves a distinctive mix of naturalism and stylization. Hogg mostly uses a fixed-position camera, and rarely employs close-ups. The lighting is as dim and inconsistent as in real life, and the dialogue terse and prosaic, but with flashes of bombast. There’s no incidental music to heighten emotion, and little emotion to heighten.
The movie’s title doesn’t arrive till the end (in the Souvenir typeface, another inside joke). It’s followed by a teaser for The Souvenir: Part II, which is not a gag. Hogg is indeed working on the next chapter in Julie’s life.
Perhaps the director’s alter ego will become a more vibrant character than the tentative young woman of this film, who often hides behind a still or film camera. The most indelible moment in The Souvenir belongs not to Julie but to her mum, charged with conveying some bad news. What she says, and the crisply discreet way she says it, is devastating.