Gemma Creagh reviews Joanna Hogg’s latest film.
The Souvenir is a gorgeous, thoughtful piece of cinema that’s reminiscent of an era in film that’s long since past. Shot with static wide shots, and on actual film, with no formal script, The Souvenir has the aesthetic and tone of something that was actually shot in the 1980s when it was set. For her fourth feature, director Joanna Hogg recreated her old apartment, went over old letters and correspondence, and recreated the events of the events of her early adulthood to tell the story of a past love.
This film is the first of two parts dramatising her relationship with a charming, older man and the impact – both good and bad – that union had on her. The film follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a quiet yet determined student filmmaker, who embarks on a slow-burning relationship with the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke). Tidla Swinton, Honor’s real-life mother, and Joanna’s real-life friend, plays Julie’s mother Rosalind.
In a world where many people can barely watch TV without getting the dopamine hits from a second screen simultaneously, the pacing is hard going in the beginning and middle of this film. As an audience, we’re watching a naive, young, middle-class woman going about her daily life for quite some time before any plot kicks in. She takes classes and chats with her friends about the meaning of life at parties – all relatively conflict free. The excruciatingly slow build of her relationship with Anthony takes such a long time to take flight. However, once the complexity of their interactions set in, and truths within their dynamic are revealed, everything changes; The Souvenir becomes an unnerving, honest and engaging watch.
There’s a level of self awareness in this film that seems out of place given the sincerity of the lead and the intimacy of her relationship with Anthony. When the subject of film comes up, Julie and her fellow film students are constantly pontificating about what film is and its purpose, in a way that feels pointed and staged – two things everything else in this film is not. The imperfect dialogue, and playful interactions from these skilled actors improvising scenes work exceptionally well in this context. However, The Souvenir does not fully escape the repetitive banalities that plague the dialogue of this and most other films from the mumblecore movement.
Julie’s arc is minimal. Her confidence and strength builds over time in a manner which appears incredibly truthful, yet she’s hard to root for because her agency is so limited. You could argue that this film is more of a character study of Anthony, and his own complex set of issues. However, here’s so little of his character explained to us that even at the end of the film he still retains so much of his mystery. When he does reveal information about his past, he taunts us by only delivering a few small, fascinating tidbits. Ultimately, this proves frustrating, because it’s not long before you realise not everything he’s saying is true.
This film and its structure, breaks all the rules – and works as a result.