Film & TV

Review: The Souvenir

Mild spoilers for character reveals follow in this review. The reveals come early in the film, but if you wish to go in blind then we recommend watching the film first.

By Caleb Carter

“It’s interesting to me,” Julie says for the third time in thirty seconds. She is trying to explain the idea for her new student film to the mysterious Anthony (who she has just met, but will later fall for): it will be set in Sunderland and will follow a working class boy with a crippling fear of his mother dying. A particularly “student-y” idea, that relays a setting that is a far cry from the privileged one that Julie knows and inhabits and as she lands on the word “interesting” again whilst trying to pitch it, we register a slight embarrassment on her face. She repeats the word in the same way you might, in an interview, repeat the words “passionate” or “outgoing” for the umpteenth time, aware you are doing so but unable to stop returning to that safety net. The embarrassment is astoundingly recognisable – subtly human for a form of media that is usually so occupied with the overtly pretend – and it is exactly these moments that weave the tapestry of Joanna Hogg’s heartbreaking autobiographical film, The Souvenir.

Honor Swinton Byrne’s central performance of Julie is naive, authentic and vulnerable – so natural that watching her feels vaguely voyeuristic: Hogg was searching for an actress not overly trained and one that would look as if she belonged behind the camera as opposed to in front of one. She also shot the film in chronological order, with a dialogue-less script, meaning that Byrne’s performance is purely reactionary, as surprise and nervousness pass over her face as freshly as they pass over the viewer’s. Hogg would observe characters in their scenes and tweak them in the next ones accordingly, so that they were allowed to breathe through their progression without being steered in a direction that didn’t quite synthesise with the way their lines were being spoken. Some film styles (as seen in Tarantino’s newest) thrive on the film reel being tampered with: chopped up, flipped, glued and sometimes broken; but The Souvenir, as a result of Hogg’s direction, feels as if it had already existed in the world and had begun to flow from its source. The director simply dug out a path for it to trickle down, guiding it.

And in some ways it did already exist. From the sounds of things, “autobiographical” might be putting it lightly and viewing The Souvenir is sometimes such a raw and exposed experience that you may wonder if the only things that have been changed from the the true story are the last five letters of the main character’s name. But four decades has passed between the events depicted in the film and the process of depicting them and so The Souvenir feels, suitably, like memory. Its 16mm film grain is hazy and unstable, littered with POV and ultra-close-up Super 8 inserts that feel ripped from the sub-conscious, as if they were the mind’s home videos, meant only for Hogg. Time is also treated unnaturally. In the aforementioned scene, Julie meets Anthony; a couple of scenes later they are dating. It is unclear how much time has passed and this obstruction of information or leaps over the obvious are abundant in the film: unconventional pacing and a disregard for the audience will feel alienating to some viewers, but when leant into, the film feels all the more intriguing, personal and truthful. In a Q and A, the director revealed that the true ordeal actually progressed over 5 years. But the presentation of the film reflects how when you remember periods of your life that are defined by one thing (a place, a person), everything is pushed together by your mind. 40 years later, 5 years might feel like 1 long day, with the same navy grey British sky: unmoving, tepid, stirred.

This distant sense of realism is bolstered by incredibly naturalistic dialogue. People interrupt each other, talk over each other, make small talk like they wish they had never begun the conversation in the first place: irritated and anxious to finish. No one has actual arguments, rather passive aggressive squabbles, too polite or pretentious to dissolve into anger. The strict rules of human interaction mask a darker side of the film, encapsulated in Tom Burke’s enigmatically sleazy portrayal of Anthony, a performance of a man so hard to read that every scoff feels like a knife wound and every smile feels like a triumph. Julie is very middle-class, Anthony is very upper-class, and their strict adherence to simple etiquette makes the portrayal of addiction in The Souvenir all the more unsettling. It just feels too real. When Julie spots the cluster of red marks on the front of Anthony’s elbow, she simply asks in shock whether he has hurt himself. He calmly says yes, mutters something about Paris and Julie questions it no further. The audience’s heart sinks as we know exactly what the marks are and perhaps Julie does too, but she is too polite or too scared or too in denial to confront him in the moment. Politeness shrouds truth. And Hogg presents this as claustrophobia, trapped by the walls of the frame that surrounds them. You must not shout at dinner, you must not ask directly for what you really want, you must not say directly what you really mean… The tight black walls of the frame (often made tighter by interior shots through doors and down corridors) reflects Julie’s inability to think straight, or dream of a better alternative. It is easy for us to think that Julie should just leave Anthony. And upon reflection – 40 years down the line – a breakup, a move of house, a change of school may all seem like relatively simple choices, but in the time they must have seemed impossible: not because they are necessarily hard, but because Julie (Joanna) was so emotionally busy with the frustrations, trivialities and tragedies of what was happening there, then, that she was not given the screen space to imagine what other options may have existed.