In a memorable scene of The Souvenir, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is lightly criticized by her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) for her obsession with personal authenticity. With a light but reasonable tone of condescension, her droll lover expresses his irritation at the fact that so many artists focus a disparate amount of their effort on merely being honest. According to him, expressing oneself with the rawest possible sincerity shouldn’t ever be the end goal, but rather one of many possible avenues of creative potential for an artist to pursue. The scene only lasts about a minute, but it’s an exchange that strikes at the heart of the film’s central uncertainty- is it worthwhile for artists to strive for personal authenticity above all else?
The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg as a semi-autobiographical memoir of sorts, often plays like a film of half-remembered memories and feelings. Honor Swinton Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the movie) inhabits the role of our principal character Julie, a British film student in the early 1980s who desires to make a movie about a young boy and his mother in an impoverished town. We drift around her orbit for every scene of the film, entranced in the soft, grainy halo of the image surrounding her. She meanders about life in a hesitant daze, going to parties, classes, and film shoots without much confidence in any of it. Julie is a quiet young woman, the type of person that impulsively shies away from attention despite clearly craving it, someone who seems to have a great deal to say but can never find the words to properly express herself. Film is her outlet of communication with the world, or at least she wants it to be.
Her life forever changes with the entrance of Anthony, a slightly older gentleman with an aloof charisma and British sense of wit so dry you can almost hear individual sand particles leaving his voice with every inflection. He’s also a heroin addict, but Julie- in her sheltered, privileged naivety- doesn’t connect the dots running down his arm until she’s fallen deeply in love. It takes a little while to understand why she gravitates so impulsively towards him, even after learning his terrible secret. Anthony isn’t exactly dashing, but his confident charm is nevertheless magnetic, and he never feels like he’s faking his unspoken respect for Julie even when bumming money off her for his next fix.
As one might expect, a wall of distrust begins to announce itself in their relationship, though Hogg thankfully avoids all traces of melodrama with a fascinating level of emotional distance. Under a strikingly formal visual aesthetic, the camera hovers on the outskirts of scenes like an unwelcome visitor to a stranger’s memory. Grainy, static medium shots comprise much of the film, especially conversations, which maintain a rich theatrical precision of their own. The film’s dialogue almost feels scripted to sound improvised, loosely resembling the conversational rhythm of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, but with less urgency placed on showmanship and more on naturalism. Conversations flow with a pleasantly mannered rhythm and unhurried tempo, stripping away the chaos of real speech to hear the deliberation and thought behind every pause and cadence. The Souvenir only takes place in the early 1980s, but it might as well have taken place in 1880, opting for an assertive level of formal rigor usually only matched by period pieces.
On paper, The Souvenir doesn’t sound like a particularly interesting two hours. Indeed, it’s not the predictable narrative of a middle-class film student coming to terms with the real world for the first time that makes the film so compelling, but the unexpected aesthetic decisions driving and obfuscating her story. For a film pulled from her own intimate experiences, Hogg withdraws a shocking amount of the emotional familiarity she must have with the material, stringing together the film’s individual vignettes with elliptical ambiguity. And yet, there’s a soft vulnerability, an inescapable nostalgia that slips through the cracks of the film’s rigid barriers. It feels less as if we’re sneaking a peek into someone’s memories than watching them play out through the melancholy eyes of their owner.
As Joanna Hogg would probably be the first to say, The Souvenir isn’t for everyone. More a therapeutic work of introspective self-discovery than a piece of entertainment made with audiences in mind, The Souvenir reaches back into the rosy recesses of its artist’s mind and transfers its imperfect contents to celluloid. Some may find the film overly stiff and proper, but its dreamy atmosphere left a surprisingly memorable impression on me. With a follow-up film on the horizon, it’s clear that Joanna Hogg has answered The Souvenir’s question on the value of sincerity for herself, even if her on-screen avatar hasn’t. It’ll be up to the opinion of each and every viewer whether Hogg’s honesty makes for compelling cinema, but I for one am eagerly looking forward to discovering more of her filmography in the near future.