Directed by Joanna Hogg
JULIE (Honor Swinton Byrne), heroine of Joanna Hogg’s latest film The Souvenir, is a fresh-faced youth whose every emotion registers as loudly as a fork dragged across rice paper; the film, on the other hand, is like obsidian glass, dark in tone and emotionally opaque — run a fingernail across its polished gleam and you leave not a mark.
Julie is a film student with a nicely white-walled apartment in Knightsbridge, across from Harrods. Rich much? Well — well-to-do; she keeps asking her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) for money and her mother forks over, but not before asking what it’s for (her film project of course). Julie readily admits to having money to her film professors, sitting across from them defending her work and making the admission shyly, apologetically, like admitting she has webbed feet or a skin condition she hides with a turtleneck.
Enter Anthony (Tom Burke) who is by turns arrogant and charming, intimate, and aloof. He eases his way into her apartment then her bed; he doesn’t quite assume control but becomes a constant presence in her life — going out together, taking a trip to Venice, borrowing money, picking out her underwear (lacy black garters are his speed).
Then a party where everything is turned on its head: tactless fellow filmmaker Patrick (Richard Ayoade, hilarious) throws out the comment “I’m trying to work out where you two tesselate.” When Julie’s face responds with a blank he explains: “habitual heroin user and trainee Rotarian.”
There’s something of Ozu in Hogg’s style of storytelling: she does direct cuts from one scene to another, and you often have to work out what’s going on: if this is a continuation of the previous scene, if it takes place several days or weeks later, if it’s whole other event happening to the same characters. She skips the heavy drama — a robbery, a death — shows us the messy aftermath. She assumes–arguably the hardest effect to achieve — a simultaneous arm’s length distance and easy rapport, mostly medium shots that hold and hold and let you study faces and reactions, slow burns and simmering tensions, often with ambivalent results.
Anthony is toxic for Julie — that becomes clear as the film progresses. Is Julie a passive victim? A somewhat willing collaborator in her exploitation? Is Rosalind too permissive or too negligent? Does Anthony really work for the Foreign Office and did he have anything to do with the explosion heard in nearby Harrods (the 1983 IRA bombing)? Is Julie a talented filmmaker or dilettante playing with expensive toys?
Hogg has no psychology for us to crack open the characters and examine their insides, only surfaces actions images that we puzzle over and interpret to the best of our ability. The story is supposedly based on Hogg’s own affair with an older man but I’m guessing — or it feels like it anyway — that the basic facts are a mere springboard on which she fashions her own fiction, it’s not so much about what did or didn’t happen (which is besides the point) but how significant was this or that event, how she feels about it or thinks she should feel about it, and the consequences for the people involved.
Is the film a feminist work? One can argue that Julie grows over the trajectory of the plot, learning to confront and answer all the older male trying to ‘mansplain’ to her, and certainly Julie and Rosalind are the film’s main focus, but I’m not sure Hogg is much interested in the question. She’s a filmmaker with her own particular obsessions and the sexual politics work out whichever way they work out.
The film’s latter third is arguably its most complexly knotted (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!): Anthony asks to come back to Julie and Julie — against our better judgment —agrees. And for a while there it actually seems to work: Anthony is a milder kinder sweeter version of what he used to be, and they seem to be genuinely good together, despite the continued ominousness of the film’s tone. Again more questions raised: is Hogg suggesting that Julie is a fool for taking Anthony back, or that redemption is possible for a heroin addict and jerk like Anthony? Is it worth trying to live with addiction, even an addict that later suffers a relapse? Was Anthony’s sudden departure a tragic end or unexpected relief? Can we continue to hate Anthony, or were we too hasty in condemning him? Should we feel contempt for Julie’s gullibility or respect for her compassion? What about Rosalind, for enabling her daughter, later supporting her through crisis? Hogg gives us no easy answers.
Honor is Tilda Swinton’s daughter but the fact is almost immaterial: she’s a wondrous presence and you fall for her from frame one and stay fallen no matter what she does. Tilda is support here but when she steps in she does so with authority; Julie needs Rosalind for better or worse… well Hogg does imply probably for better. Tom Burke as Anthony is hilariously repulsive yet somehow appealing despite all that — by film’s end you’re not sure what to think of him, in my book an achievement not a failing.
What else is there to say? The Souvenir is one of the best and also one of the most singular films to come out this year — tightl-ipped and waywardly odd, yet able to draw you out to speculate endlessly on its inscrutable indelible face.