It is easy to see why Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir connected with many critics when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. The film is as much about the art of filmmaking as it is about a young woman coming to terms with her own truths. Similar to the painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, from which The Souvenir takes its title and draws inspiration from, the film feels both familiar and foreign.
Hogg’s cinematic canvass is filled with intimate and languid brush strokes. Creating a coming of age portrait that is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.
At the film’s core is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), a film student who wants nothing more than to get her film, about an obsession between a mother and son, off the ground. Knowingly coming from a place of privilege, Julie views the film as an opportunity to experience a working class world foreign to her. A world where drama comes from hardship and struggle; and not merely having a mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), who seemingly does not understand you.
In her quest for cinematic authenticity, Julie neglects to see the drama unfolding in her own life when she begins dating the posh Anthony (Tom Burke). Older and more established in life, the intellectually suave Anthony is everything Julie wants out of a partner. That is until his heroin addiction and subsequent metal health issues begin to surface.
Taking place over the course of a year in the 1980s, The Souvenir offers a scattered look at a relationship slowly consumed by addiction. Not just Anthony’s, but Julie’s as well. Like a drug she is unable to break away from, Julie cannot seem to quit her lover despite him giving her every reason to.
Using selective segments of Julie’s memory, often not in chronological order, Hogg’s film explores the memorable and mundane moments of the couple’s relationship. The dreamy approach fits with Julie’s infatuation with Anthony, while Hogg’s overall framing of each scene ensures the viewer never loses sight of reality.
Due to the measured pacing, and Julie’s blindness to full extent of her situation, The Souvenir does become a chore to endure after a while. The saving grace is the wonderful work by Honor Swinton Byrne. Giving a performance that should cement her as a leading actress for years to come, Byrne is a revelation. She captures the joys and pains of Julie’s relationship with an intensity and compassion that is breathtaking to watch. Her emotion rings true even when some scenes do not.
For a film that is constantly commenting on the nature of truth and artifice in cinema, The Souvenir often feels like the latter despite its stellar performances. Hogg’s semi-autobiographical tale is constantly aware of the medium it is using. As a result, there is a coldness to many of the scenes that is not easy to shake. It is as if we are invited to observe Julie’s memories, but never get to learn who she really is outside of Anthony.
At no point does one worry about Julie while on this tightly controlled emotional journey. Conflicts while vacationing in Venice or incidents involving theft never feel as impactful as they should. One always knows that Julie’s mother will be there to bail her out financially and support her emotionally. Julie’s privilege engulfs her like an inflatable bubble designed to ensure she always remains just out of our reach.
While there is much in The Souvenir to admire, this lethargic keepsake will not evoke fond memories for everyone.