The Souvenir - 2019
Director(s): Joanna Hogg
Writer(s): Joanna Hogg
Cinematography by: David Raedeker
Editor(s): Helle le Fevre
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne, Jack McMullen and Tom Burke
Joanna Hogg has a very particular style of filmmaking - as she is less worried about plot or story fluidity, and more focus on the experience/feeling of the events depicted on screen. Hogg never force-feeds information to her audience and hopes that they keep up with her as she blurs the line between fiction and autobiographical fragments that make her movie. So, walking into The Souvenir I did not know what to expect, and walking out I still don't know how to put into words why this slow, quiet, and personal film affected me so much. Let's try.
The story follows Julie (Swinton Byrne), a young film student in London right in the middle of making her first feature. During a party, she meets a mysterious man named Anthony (Burke), and while charming, he has a way of demeaning her work and ambitious that makes her want to gain his approval. She is in love - her First love. And she is blinded by this love that she cannot see all the warning signs that he is a heroin addict before it is too late. Julie tries to balance her college life and her newfound romance, testing her limits, and giving her a new perspective on life.
Hogg's screenplay plays out as if she is trying to recall a dream a distant memory or more importantly, what she felt during that memory. Hogg will be the first to say that her movies aren't 100% autobiographical, but The Souvenir deals with something very personal - finding your first love in an extremely flawed person - and that is why at times I was uncomfortable during the film, as I felt like a voyeur in her life. The film is not interested in passing judgment on Julie, for staying with Anthony despite his addiction and constant demining of her art - it just wants to show how easily love can justify us looking past all the red flags. How love, and especially when you first encounter it, can be like a drug addiction that overrides your logic and corrupts all your friendships, goals, and aspirations.
Quick note: the hyper-realistic framing and the fragmented pacing will turn off many viewers - some might even be bored by the film - but I was so sucked into this world that I didn't even notice the time pass by.
The film is set in the mid-1980s and is shot in a grainy harsh style that I loved from 2017's Phantom Thread, adding to the raw nature of the story. Helle le Fevre's editing, while at times may seem random, it creates a cohesive through line (despite it disjointed nature). I was blown away by Honor Swinton Byrne's naturalistic performance - as she does a balancing act of a woman on the verge of a nervous break (balancing college, her first film and her crumbling relationship) and a woman madly and happily in love. I particularly enjoyed watching Honor, and her mother Tilda Swinton (playing Julie's mother) act opposite each other - especially towards the end as Tilda tries to protect her daughter from the pain Anthony causes her with his addiction. And finally, Tom Burke as Anthony is perfect, as I have not hated someone so much on film, yet completely understood why Julie was attracted to his charms and ways.
The Souvenir is not a film for everyone, the pacing is awkward, the editing is sporadic, and the story itself is hard to watch - as you want to yell at Julie to get out of that relationship. However, I do not think it is a coincidence that all her professors are telling her to tell a story that she understands and that she has lived through - as this film draws you in due to its authenticity. It is as if you are reading from her diary, and experiencing exactly how it felt to get lost inside a toxic relationship with all the highs and the lows.
The Souvenir is Why I Love Movies.
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