The more you’re aware of the technique, the more you can appreciate writer/director Joanna Hogg’s new English drama, The Souvenir.
The film’s title is based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th-century painting of the same name. It depicts a young woman carving the initials of her love onto the bark of a tree. The woman is thought to be the heroine of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, deeply in love but unable to marry.
In Hogg’s The Souvenir, this modern-day Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton who plays Julie’s mother) is not the subject of an ornate painting but a naive young photographer and film student who meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a man in a pin-striped suit who works for the Foreign Office. Somehow, Anthony charms his way into her life. While that initial meeting would be enough to trip alarm bells in the minds of most, Julie is not yet that experienced to recognize the signs. A relationship develops. But he’s toxic. No sooner have they met when Anthony asks Julie if he could move in with her and share her upscale Knightsbridge flat. He tells her that his moving in has something to do with his job, but it’s too complicated to explain why, so he doesn’t. Though she should have asked more, Julie doesn’t. She opens her door.
The student, while giving free-loader Anthony a roof under his head and occasionally loaning him money whenever he requests, wants to make a film at her school of a working-class character with a setting in the docks of Sunderland, a subject at complete odds with her privileged and somewhat sheltered upper-middle-class background, and one that, presumably, she knows little about. She also appears to lack the knowledge or appreciate the cost of making such a film, either. As a professor at the school observes, “I don’t suppose you really have to think about budgets in Knightsbridge, do you.” The Souvenir and what unfolds is based on the director’s real-life experience during the eighties when she was a young girl artist who attended a film school and entered into a relationship. All projects that Julie talks of while at the film school are based on the actual work Hogg developed during the eighties.
Hogg’s story is clearly a personal, self-reflective work, that, unlike her on-screen counterpart’s desire to make a film about a subject and a setting of which she knows little, covers ground the director knows all too well. – herself. The actors worked to a script, but Hogg’s approach to her leading lady was to have Byrne, a non-actor in her first film, research the director’s diaries written during the early eighties, study the films she made as a student, and look at old photographs and notes of the time. By immersing her with the reality of Hogg’s past, Byrne was then instructed to perform and speak in a way that would feel natural. The other actors, though working with a screenplay, were told to react to whatever Byrne said.
As with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal project, Roma, where even the smallest details of his upbringing were recreated, down to a facsimile of his childhood home and its environs, Hogg’s Knightsbridge flat, where a large portion of The Souvenir takes place, is replicated in the film, a set built inside an airplane hangar. The views through the window that both Julie and Anthony see are actually projections of photographs that Hogg took while living there. Unfortunately, due to the director’s use of lengthy single shots with little movement of the camera, a style that allows audiences the opportunity of taking the projections in, those views through the window soon take on a lifeless, empty form that exemplifies how The Souvenir itself often feels.
When a bruise and a couple of small puncture marks on Anthony’s arm are so clearly the result of drug abuse, Julie doesn’t recognize them. She advises that he leave the marks alone; they’ll eventually just go away. When Anthony leaves the flat with no intention of telling Julie where he’s going, he’ll ask, “Can you lend me a tenor?” And when the man raids the flat in Julie’s absence and sells some precious artifacts, including her camera equipment, he lets her think the place was robbed. It’s only later when she discovers what had happened that he says in his usual, low-key, practically emotionless tone, “I knew you’d mind, that’s why I never told you.” Instead of the moment erupting into a scene of conflict or drama, once again, Julie’s emotions are held in check. Anyone else would have thrown him out.
The film’s rhythms may also test patience. Conversations are joined like a work already in progress. We never see how Julie and Anthony meet, we connect while they’re already talking. She tells him about her school project, which he questions – “We don’t want to see life played out as it is,” he insists – while he says nothing about himself other than he’s a government official working for the Foreign Office. “Must be boring,” Julie observes. “It is,” he responds. And when it’s later revealed that it was Anthony who stole Julie’s jewelry and camera equipment for the money, we never witness how the admission came about or what the circumstances were that lead to the reveal; it’s already happened. All we hear is Anthony telling her he knew that she would mind.
The most dismaying feature of all is how well the film has been received by critics, almost unanimously, since The Souvenir was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It leads one to seriously question the pull of a group, the unconscious influence of what others think and feel. Viewing the film outside of the festival circuit away from its packed houses of festival goers and industry insiders and the standing ovations that invariably follow leaves a decidedly different impression.
Watching The Souvenir is like attempting to talk with someone whom others have previously told you is a deep thinker. You acknowledge the craft that went into the making but all it’s giving back is a long, vacant stare.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 119 Minutes