“The Souvenir,” Reviewed: Joanna Hogg’s Ambitious, Frustrating Autobiographical Drama
There’s a theoretical aspect to Joanna Hogg’s urgent and ambitious autobiographical drama, “The Souvenir,” along with its dramatic one; but, far from reinforcing each other, these two aspects are in conflict—neither wins, but both are weakened. It’s set mainly in London, in the early nineteen-eighties, when Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker and film student in her early twenties, encounters a man named Anthony (Tom Burke), who’s about ten years older and much worldlier than she is. It’s a movie about love and art in which Hogg’s strong identification with the protagonist takes the place of psychology and self-examination, and a movie about memory in which little in the action suggests any effort to recover the past. The effect is a peculiar one—a vast framework of ideas and experience gives rise to an anecdotal movie, one that’s much less audacious than the inspiration that gave rise to them.
Anthony works—or claims to work—for the Foreign Office, and claims to be working on dossiers of critical political moment. He’s a former art student ablaze with artistic talent and passion, a dandy with a fine wardrobe, an intellectual with a flamboyantly aphoristic manner, and—at first unbeknownst to Julie—a heroin addict. Julie maintains a close relationship with her parents, especially her mother (Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother), and attempts to make progress in her art, conceiving a project and enrolling in film school. Anthony’s critical sensibility, despite its harshness, helps her along, even as the stresses of their relationship distract her from school and fray her nerves.
Hogg’s most notable accomplishment is in her calibration of the lead performances, which are quasi-theatrical yet distinctively cinematic. Swinton Byrne, who has never had a major movie role before, endows Julie with a quietly tremulous sense of self-doubt and inquisitive yearning—as well as a deer-in-the-headlights gaze at Anthony’s distantly lurid brilliance and aggressive emotional provocations. In Burke’s performance, Hogg brings out Anthony’s ravaged superciliousness, a noble and ornate façade of exquisite refinement that’s on the verge of shattering under the pressure of his addiction and the deceptions and ignominies that it entails.
What’s more, Hogg catches crucial differences between Julie (along with the rest of her film-school entourage) and Anthony, by way of both wardrobe and gesture. Anthony’s exquisite clothing and manners—including the muted monochrome of his voice—stand out from the unpondered spontaneity of the scruffier students. But most important, Anthony embodies an entire collective history in the tense control of his behavior; he’s completely still, unless and except when he wants to move, whereas Julie and her other friends are fidgety, loosely strung, and uncontrolled. Hogg’s sense of casting proves decisive; Swinton Byrne’s on-camera inexperience and lack of theatrical training lends her a searching uncertainty that’s a crucial emotional element of the drama.
That drama, however, proves far less substantial and less considered than the casting and direction of actors. Knowing that I’d soon be seeing “The Souvenir,” I deliberately avoided reading my colleague Rebecca Mead’s recent profile of Hogg, in order to avoid comparing the specifics of Hogg’s life story while contemplating the version of it that she places onscreen. I didn’t have more than a general notion of the movie’s connection to Hogg’s personal life, but, as I watched the movie, I nonetheless sensed that it was a very slight and narrow representation of the protagonist’s experience—that it reflected much less than Hogg knew or could have imagined about Julie. The film is conspicuously inscribed in the concept of memory and the transformation of personal experience into art. Yet Hogg never dramatizes her access to the elements of her inner life or any struggle for engagement with it. The film offers no sense of searching for memories or grasping at its details or its import. Hogg’s proximity to her earlier self seems complete and total; there’s no cinematic device to suggest a present-tense filmmaker reaching back to an earlier stage of her own life and art.
Hogg’s identification with Julie seems just about total—Julie is in just about every scene in the film, she’s often the only person in a given scene, and she’s the only character with any subjective sequences at all. But there are very few point-of-view shots showing what Julie sees, very little attention paid to her inner experience. (For instance, when she first talks with Anthony, there’s no frontal view of his face; when Julie is on the phone, what she’s hearing from the person on the other end of the line is never heard; what she’s reading when she opens her mail isn’t disclosed, and neither is what she’s seeing while taking photographs with her 35-mm. S.L.R. or shooting film with her handheld 16-mm. movie camera.) Hogg depicts Julie from the outside, mainly detaching herself from Julie’s point of view but never standing far enough outside to reveal any curiosity about Julie’s thoughts or state of mind. And it isn’t only psychology that’s missing from “The Souvenir”; the film also lacks a basic interest in how Julie responds to situations—what she does in crucial moments of her life—or how she responds to her relationship with Anthony.
Many tense and conflict-riddled scenes between Julie and Anthony are cut dismayingly short just as they’re getting going, inviting dramatizations that Hogg never provides. For instance, Anthony speaks abusively to Julie, calling her “a freak” because of her “fragility,” adding, “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost.” What is Julie’s response? It isn’t shown. Likewise, Hogg cuts away after Anthony criticizes Julie’s film-school application. On a luxurious Venice jaunt with Anthony, Julie sits in a posh hotel and weeps, for good reason. But when Anthony demands that she cheer up because he finds her sadness “punishing,” Hogg cuts away again to a later event, as they head to the opera. After Julie—finding Anthony’s drug paraphernalia and seeing his many needle marks—orders him out of the apartment, Hogg cuts away again, rather than film his response and their confrontation.
The real-life Hogg comes off, in Mead’s piece, as a voluble storyteller, describing her copious cache of notebooks, letters, and diaries dating from the time of her life that the movie covers, and also recordings of therapy sessions in which she discusses that time. She also tells some noteworthy stories that provide the context and the background for the film—but they’re exactly the kind of moments that Hogg elides. Julie’s apartment, in the film, is what Mead calls “an inch-by-inch reconstruction of Hogg’s elegant student digs,” complete with furnishings that belonged to the filmmaker at the time, such as a grand, ornate bed that turns up in Julie’s apartment midway through the movie. Hogg explains that she had such a bed and that she and the real-life version of Anthony had bought it at auction; yet the movie offers no such rationale, no such grace note of the characters’ relationship. As a result, the film offers the viewer not a few excerpts from a full range of a life but merely the absence of what made it full. The very story of Hogg’s replication of her flat in a studio—for that matter, imagining her work with the production designer and set decorators to realize it—offers a more powerful evocation of the pull of memory than anything in the film.
The movie’s idiosyncratic composition, comprising many static takes that deliver the action with a plain reserve, doesn’t so much fragment the action enigmatically as reduce it to anecdotes and information. The bold and admirable act of will that it took to make the film is distinct from the aesthetic willfulness with which it was made. A far more conventional director might have been inclined to ask more questions of the script, to show more of the action, to reveal more about the characters, and, as a result, to make a more engaging and insightful movie. In that sense, “The Souvenir” reveals the pitfalls of classic auteur cinema, the concept of the screenwriter-director who relates her own experience by way of dramatic fiction. Hogg knows the story as no one else does; her authority is, in the literal sense, unimpeachable. It may be her very intimacy with the subject of the film that leaves her incurious about it—she offers a daring and heartfelt view of her own life but, in delivering it, leaves it unexplored. In the end, “The Souvenir” is a movie about experience that doesn’t itself offer much of an experience.