An extraordinary and deeply personal exploration on deep memories and experiences, British writer-director Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature film, “The Souvenir” is an astonishing origin story that is deeply auto-biographical, and the vision on display in this film is quite relieving since it avoids didacticism on gender, class, and relationships, instead Hogg is more interested in crafting an observational visual memoir that is deeply layered, intimate and ultimately elegiac. Her film does explore fresh and profound themes on privilege, doomed relationships, and what it truly means to be a filmmaker, but she isn’t interested in preaching or lecturing to the audience, or making a film about the battles of the sexes. Instead she allows the human depth and ideas in the film to be honest and involving. and the result is a female filmmaker that ranks with Sofia Coppola, Claire Denis, and Andrea Arnold.
Hogg’s visual splendor and style echoes the likes of Chantal Akerman and even Sofia Coppola with beautifully composed static shots and long takes. The intimacy on display is very affectionate, and the result here feels deeply personal in which it doesn’t hit one false note. The films protagonist who is clearly a reflection of Hogg herself is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student in her early 20’s who is madly in love with a charming and well spoken man named Anthony (Tom Burke), meanwhile Julie feels like she doesn’t have much of an artistic voice because she hasn’t experienced much in her life due to her being born into a wealthier lifestyle, and she feels film is a medium to find the struggles of humanity with experience and with humility. Julie has spent a lot of her life detached from hardships, and Hogg places the viewer into her world quite vividly, and the way it unfolds with her revelations and awareness is quite engaging.
Hogg dives into the themes of art merging with reality, drug-addiction, toxic relationships, and every detail in the film holds such resonance and deep emotional honesty, you almost feel as if you are eavesdropping one a young woman’s life living in England in the 1980’s. Hogg uses deep empathy and authenticity to allow the viewer to endure an emotional journey of a young woman trying to find who she is as a person, as a filmmaker, and as an artist as she endures complications from her caring, but deeply troubled boyfriend Anthony.
Tom Burke is truly stellar here as Anthony, Hogg never judges him, but rather observes him where it allows the audience to feel deep sympathy for his character. We know Anthony is not what he appears to be, he’s bright, well-mannered, and cultured on the outside, but in the inside he holds a lot of alienation, desperation, and a severe heroin addiction that follows his self-destruction. There will be a part of you as you watch it where you want Julie to just move on, but at the same time you can’t turn away from the undeniable love they hold for each other. Their relationship is caught with contradictions, anxieties, turmoil, and fear of losing one another. Their intimacy is undeniable, and just like Julie you want to understand and empathize harder with Anthony and Julie, and their relationship as it unfolds.
Elevating the films greatness is the superb casting by Hogg, most notably Tilda Swinton in old-age make-up once again (Suspria, The Grand Budapest Hotel) delivers a grounded and superb performance by Tilda’s own daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, is a star in the making as she makes her true cinematic debut here. You can see Honor 10 years ago in Luca Guadagino’s 2010 dazzling masterpiece “I Am Love” (which made my top 10 in 2010), which also starred Tilda Swinton, but it was a small role. Here they play mother-daughter and their connection truly resonates on screen and it only pushes the film further in how rich and authentic it really is. Performances across the board are first-rate, and Bryne brings so much uncanny emotion into this performance as she continues the toxic relationship with Anthony as she is blinded by love. As noted above Tom Burke is uncanny here, and he deserves special attention for a Best Supporting Actor consideration. It is truly a deeply compelling and enticing performance. It is so natural and raw, where you leave wondering just how much detail Hogg must have shared with him to deliver that performance.
What’s so revelatory about “The Souvenir” is just how it strays away from conventional movie trappings and detours, sure we have the failed romances, the drug addiction, and self-realization, yet the film becomes more about how certain people are seduced into toxic relationships. It almost becomes a natural reaction that women hold, and Hogg is boldly exploring just how women are pulled into being the role of the nurturer in a vile and rather irrational relationship, and she paints this as if its an inescapable human nature quality. Even though Anthony brings an emotional toll into Julie’s life, you can’t deny his vulnerabilities that pushes her into a person of greater empathy and alertness that is needed to be an artist.
Hogg’s camera, along with the cinematography by David Raedeker is impeccable, and the cinematography is desaturated with a lot of low key, underlit and natural lighting with a 16mm palette that shows Julie’s over privileged world is fading away from her. The films staging and framing is mostly in rooms where the actors are measured in small distances, often with walls and mirrors to show how its impossible to escape from our own memories and experiences. All around this is again a deeply personal film showcasing how Hogg had to struggle and truly discover how she became the person and artist she is today. With great suffering comes greater empathy, which is the ultimate key to being any creator of art. I was shocked to learn at the end credits there is a sequel in the works, and this time it will feature Robert Pattinson. I can’t wait to see what Joanna Hogg does next with this.