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The Souvenir •
Joanna Hogg’s Magnificent Self-Portrait of Love, Loss, and Creative
Awakening — Sundance
Jan 27, 2019
incredible breakout performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda's daughter)
galvanizes Joanna Hogg's indelible story of first love.
premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.
and Honor Swinton Byrne
appear in The Souvenir
by Joanna Hogg
, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the
2019 Sundance Film Festival.
There isn’t much of a story in Joanna
Hogg’s heartfelt and searingly honest “The Souvenir” — the British filmmaker,
somehow a breakthrough talent for the last 30 years, has always been less
interested in plot than condition — and so this romantic drama about a young
woman’s doomed first love might just as well be summarized by a poem from the
late Mary Oliver:
“Someone I loved once gave
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
too, was a gift.”
Set in the early 1980s, shot with the gauzy
harshness of “Phantom Thread,” and named after an 18th
century rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard,
“The Souvenir” finds
Hogg reaching into her own past in order to reclaim it as a
present; it’s a somewhat disguised self-portrait that’s sketched with almost four
decades of distance between its artist and her canvas, the time between then and
now allowing Hogg to better appreciate how the lovesick
girl we see on screen grew up to be the lauded filmmaker we feel behind the
“The Souvenir”, Agatha A. Nitecka,
That seems to have been one hell
of a journey. Then again, becoming who you are is one of the hardest things we
ever have to do, and none of us are guaranteed to get there in the end. Equal
parts reverie and requiem, “The
Souvenir” reveals itself to be a diorama-esque dissection of
that volatile time in your life when every molecule feels like it’s restlessly vibrating
in place, and even a brief encounter with another person has the power to
rearrange your basic chemistry; when you’re so desperate to become yourself that
you’ll happily believe in anyone else you happen to find along the way.
The film begins and ends with a shy 25-year-old film student named Julie,
and she’s one letter off from Hogg in all respects; not a direct recreation of the
director’s younger self, but close enough that her London flat is a perfect replica of
the one that Hogg lived in at that age (the set was built inside of an airplane
hanger, and the city views seen through the windows are 35mm projections of
photographs that Hogg took in her twenties). Julie, embodied by the brilliant
newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne
in a devastatingly naturalistic performance that she peels back like a
scab, is a Molly Ringwald type who can’t help but wish that she were a bit less
posh and proper — that her world was as large as her appetite for it.
Julie wants to make a metaphor-laden movie about a
momma’s boy from the working class city of Sunderland, but she only seems
drawn to it because the story is so removed from her own experience. Is her own
life not valid?
And then she meets an ominous-looking boy (or man) at
a party who answers that rhetorical question for her. He tells her that “We’re all as real as each other,” and it’s as if those are
the only words she’s ever needed to hear. She’s in love. His name is
Anthony (a febrile, fantastic Tom Burke), and he looks like a cross
between Hugh Grant and Peter
Lorre. He takes Julie to the ritzy Wallace
Collection where the Fragonard painting is housed, and he pays for lunch with a
check. He tells Julie that she’s lost
and always will be, and she thinks that at least he’s found her. She would never
have guessed that Anthony is a heroin addict; one of his
friends (played by Richard Ayoade) has to tell her. Just like that, Julie finds herself
in a story that’s far removed from her own experience.
unfolds with the random flow of remembrance, hopping from one flashbulb
memory to another with little regard for pace or structure; it’s obvious why some
of these scenes might have a lasting impact on Julie’s life,
but there’s often little rhyme or reason to why certain moments stick with a
person, and Hogg never ignores that fact for the sake of narrative convenience.
And this really is a film made out of moments, some of which come and go with no
clear purpose. Julie spends a lot of time sitting at her desk and trying to get out of
her own head.
Anthony is often there with her,
shuffling around in a bathrobe as we try to suss out how much of his latent
hostility is owed to the heroin. Julie doesn’t want to know
where he disappears to all the time; she delights in the mystery of it all. The more
elusive Anthony seems, the more special it is that he always returns to her.
Once in a while, Julie meets up with her protective
mother (a brittle and Thatcher-chic Tilda Swinton, Honor’s actual mom), or hovers
in the background of one of her film school classes. As per usual in
Hogg’s films — in which a severe aesthetic clashes against
improvised dialogue in order to create a destabilizing friction between order and
chaos — these episodes are both rigid and hyper-naturalistic at the same time, like
someone desperately trying to thread together the logic of a dream they once had.
A handheld camera shooting a soft film stock in shallow focus touches
everything with a fuzzy sense of romance, frustrating Julie’s growing need for
clarity. She’s only outdoors for a few quick seconds of this two-hour movie, and it
isn’t long before a certain claustrophobia to sink in through the walls, as though
Hogg’s young stand-in might suffocate to death if she can’t escape herself and find
her place in the world.
But it’s Anthony who hems her in more than anything else.
Julie might see him as her bridge to some kind of broader
experience (she’s eager to ignore class, erase her own privilege, and think of her
boyfriend’s addiction as more of a quirk than a problem), but Anthony relies on
heroin more than he relies on her, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts to
steamroll over Julie’s creative ambition. Mercifully, that rancid process subverts
Hogg avoids the sort of
histrionic screaming matches that you might expect from the material, and
Julie — for better or worse — is all too happy to put
Anthony’s needs before her own. She loves his feral
unpredictability, and never tries to tame him. She knows that all of this might be
the stuff of a great movie one day.
“The Souvenir,” by its very nature, can’t
shame her for that. Not only does the film revolve around an artist who’s learning
how to oxidize her pain into something productive, it’s also the product of Hogg’s
own process; a tender history of its own making. It may have taken
Hogg several decades to realize that her own box of
darkness was actually a beautiful gift, but she unwraps it with the care and
tenderness of someone who understands its true value.
We may never
know who gave it to her — if the “Anthony” from her own life is similar to the one
she created on screen — but her gratitude for him reverberates so clearly through
the unforgettable final shots of this film that even Hogg’s most painful memories
are reborn into something beautiful. “We want to see life
not as it’s lived,” Anthony tells
Julie, “but as it’s experienced
within this soft machine.”
“The Souvenir” allows us to do just that. And
with Hogg slated to shoot a direct sequel with
Byrne and Robert Pattinson this
summer, it may be a gift that keeps on giving.
Julie is a young film student struggling to find a firm direction in life when she
meets Anthony. An intense romance blossoms between them, but as the
relationship develops it becomes clear that Anthony is not being completely
honest, and that this could have devastating consequences for them both.
“The Souvenir” premiered at the 2019
Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.
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