Director: Joanna Hogg
Stars: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Joanna Hogg’s latest is her most ambitious project yet, so ambitious that the second half won’t even reach us until next year. The sense of largess unfurls to the viewer, who is asked to process a lot. It’s no understatement to say that I came out of the screening in a state of discombobulation. I honestly didn’t know how I felt about what I’d witnessed. If the objective of an artist is to change the audience, then Hogg’s film can be construed as a success.
The Souvenir is a nakedly autobiographical piece, detailing the life and experiences of a waifish young woman as she starts out at film school in the early 80’s. Hogg’s alter-ego in this instance is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), resident of Knightsbridge and from a well-to-do background. In stark contrast she wants to make a film about dilapidated shipping town Sunderland in the north of England. When interviewed about the project she is quizzed on whether her subject tallies with her own experiences. Credit to her that she has a decent rejoinder.
This film acts as a kind of loss-of-innocence piece, as the initially ‘green’ Julie becomes involved with an arrogant, secretive man named Anthony (Tom Burke). Innocence may be the wrong word. Naivety might suit better. Julie is wounded by Anthony’s lies and shocked by his hidden life; something revealed to her by accident by one of Anthony’s colleagues (a distracting guest spot from Richard Aoyade). The directness of the truth in this moment is shocking, even though we the audience have been shown the clues and been thoroughly prepared for the news. His manipulations of her responses are brazen and heart-breaking.
Julie’s family are always supportive and close-by. Her mother is played by Swinton Byrne’s actual mother; the ever-wonderful Tilda. Watching them act together in a film that is in itself quasi-autobiographical is a fascinating thing, as though layers of reality have been beamed into a hall of mirrors until you can’t quite separate out the source. It’s an invigorating mixture. That, combined with the burgeoning relationship between Julie and Anthony, more than satisfies for the film’s first hour.
During this phase I was enchanted by the picture. I’ve experienced Hogg’s work before so I entered forewarned of her fascination with the negative spaces in a scene; both in terms of geographical space and the gaps between statement and response in conversation. Her films are at once wide open and hemmed in. The spaces within them feel amplified, making the edges of the frame claustrophobic.
This duality was initially very satisfying. The interior of one of the film’s chief locations features a wall of mirrors and a tight hallway space. Hogg’s camera placements are sneaky, making us question Julie and Anthony’s physical relation to one another. Exercises like this are fun and keep the energy up. Hogg’s cinema might also be called sparse, and great leaps in emotional evolution can be made with great economy. As such there’s a relentless tension that, in spite of seeming slow, you daren’t miss a moment. Toward the end of the film, two words (“The worst”) are delivered in such a way as to break hearts.
But I can’t get around how completely The Souvenir lost my interest in its second hour. I’m not sure what it was that did it, and sitting here writing I’m working on the fly, improvising wildly as I try to nail down the cause. It could be that – so soon after Almodóvar’s indulgent Pain And Glory – another depiction of privileged addiction just wasn’t inspiring to me. The elements that made the film engaging started to mean less. In short, it tested my patience. I lost all sense of time and place in the film and couldn’t for the life of me work out how Hogg intended to end. The Souvenir started to dissolve in front of me, dispersing into a series of increasingly humdrum scenes of unbearably stifled sadness.
In retrospect now it seems drearily in keeping with Julie’s wishes for her own film; to depict the collapse of something. She wanted to experience – through fiction – the slow devastation of the inevitable, only for that very thing to come into her life in a way she couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Perhaps it is ultimately a tale of disappointment; of lessons learned the hard way; of encountering the world without the safety of another take if the scene goes wrong.
On the fringes of the film, Hogg pushes the politics of the time into the narrative. Thatcherism and ‘the Troubles’. Decor and costumes… even the film grain breathe respectable authenticity into the piece. You could imagine The Souvenir playing fringe theatres just as Éric Rohmer was starting to woo audiences with his Comedies And Proverbs series. It’s daunting to think of a film set in the ’80s as a ‘period drama’, but the evocation here is uncanny.
Still, I wrestle with my response to this piece. On the one hand its a humane investigation into the lengths and limits of love and how we mature into our art. On the other, it lost me so thoroughly that I practically begged for an ending. It was only afterwards that I remembered that there is more of this story to be told, and that this perhaps portions some of the sense of deflation I encountered. The Souvenir has been hyped to the rafters. As much as I wanted to, I can only go along with that so far. It’s many things all at once. Intimate and dawdling, invigorating and tired. In the end its Honor Swinton Byrne’s work that first and foremost guarantees I’ll be back next year for Part Two.