Movie Review: ‘THE SOUVENIR’ tests the limits of love and art

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James C. Clay // Film Critic 

THE SOUVENIR

Rated R, 119 minutes.
Director: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

Romantic relationships aren’t meant to be covetted, but respected. For many when that roman candle feeling of infatuation comes across us we are blinded by our own desires and wants from that person in question. The issue is not with desire itself, but with the storm of thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that cloud our decisions when we experience desire. Some experience this at a younger age, and others perhaps later in life, but no matter when these obsessions take over we are never too late to come of age. These feelings can be miserable, but can also be a gift from the universe. This is the angle director Joanna Hogg’s film THE SOUVENIR takes. It’s a film veiled in tranquility, but underneath the sheets lay swirling, dark thoughts that reveal the story of a young film student’s quietly toxic relationship with a sophisticated, yet devious older man.

THE SOUVENIR moves at its own pace, as the words hurry and rousing are not in its’ vocabulary. Hogg directs from an academic standpoint; one that comments on intellectual aspects of Film, while being a piece of art in and of itself. There’s much to dissect in Hogg’s work, but breaking past the threshold of her directing choices will be a challenge to the less patient viewers.

In the 1980s we meet a quiet 24-year-old film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), as she’s a privileged young woman who is in the process of finding her voice as an artist and as a human being. We see her in hazy shots trying to articulate her work and how it relates to the world. She’s a person who has always had an abundance of opportunity, yet she wants her art to reflect what’s outside that bubble, often viewed as appropriation and exploitation of those who are downtrodden. She meets the peculiar Anthony (Tom Burke) at a local party. He speaks the “Kings English,” a posh British dialect. The man is dressed in suits and lavish jackets and he listens to Julie talk about her work when others seem disinterested. He provides her feedback and travels about Europe living without a care. 

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir (Photo Courtesy of A24)

The two have a flirtatious relationship that subtly unfolds into an unhealthy one when Anthony starts to take advantage of her kindness. Julie throws him a few quid here, picks up the check there, and as his behavior becomes more scattered and erratic her eyes lose sight of what is happening; Anthony is a heroin abuser. Her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) warns her to proceed with caution, but these notions barely register. In one moment in bed, Anthony jokingly teases Julie about how much space he has on his side “I’m on the edge here, and you literally have a foot of space on either side of you.” He may be joking, but there’s truth to his words. He’s literally hanging on by a thread, while Julie has so much room to spread her wings.

They embark on a cycle of sophisticated interactions that are coupled with unstable eruptions as Julie starts to lose sight of her own voice just as she is learning to understand herself. This is an entrenched look into their relationship filled with the smallest moments that are sharp and cut deep, even if the implications aren’t apparent from the start. Hogg deftly retains full command of what she wants the audience to see, but she never tells the viewer what to think.

She uses the relationship as a conduit to talk about art and the meanings behind the mystery. As Julie is attending school she receives broad generalizations from her professors about Film that are well-intentioned, yet amateurish at best and act only as a place to obtain cheap camera equipment. However, Julie lacks that pretension and is a person searching for truth in her surroundings, even though she isn’t realizing the inner turmoil that is ruining her life. This is a film that uses Anthony’s drug abuse as a comment about class and the fetishization of drug use by those who may feel like they can’t be burdened by the societal scorn of substance abuse.

Much like her costar/mother Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne showcases her screen prowess by searching for naturalism that puts her at the center of the story at all times without demanding any attention at all. She is assumed to be a meek person, who has a formidable mind so caught up in the whirlwind romance that it becomes consuming. Modulating a performance like this can’t be an easy feat, and while this film isn’t going to give you the big moments it does provide a realism that plays like flashes of memory. The film jumps from moment to moment seamlessly, it’s as if Hogg is a magician making us look one way while a tricky sleight of hand is working on a whole different level of filmmaking. I don’t know anything about Hogg, but it appears this is a work that’s a deeply personal journey for the filmmaker.

THE SOUVENIR will please only a small amount of audience members. In one moment Julie muses about film theory by saying “I want my art to entertain as well as inform,” without ever truly understanding what it means to be entertaining while conveying a message. It appears Hogg subscribes to this notion completely without bothering to adapt to the art of entertainment. While there is an incredible amount of skill at play, be warned that as a viewer your limits will be challenged by the filmmaker’s vision, and that vision is not to entertain but convey a message. Love can be a cruel beast, but the experience that follows is what inspires. 

Grade: B