Art as autobiography is always a tricky thing. The act of exorcism or deep exploration into one's self can result in something achingly personal that allows the audience in through its specificity, or becomes the defining characteristic of the work and offers little to anyone other than the artist themselves. Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir’, already one of the most acclaimed films of the year, sits somewhere in the middle. There are aspects that ring clear as a perfectly-tuned violin string, played with truth and longing, and aspects that seem too personal without the objective understanding of what they can mean to the viewer.
Set in 1980s United Kingdom, Hogg tells her story through the cypher of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young aspiring film student trying to find her feet in film school whilst also caught in a complex and destructive relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke, ‘War & Peace’, ‘Only God Forgives’), a drug addict whose addiction threatens to overwhelm both himself and their relationship. Both Hogg’s screenplay and direction meticulously chart the turmoil of the relationship, from first meeting to its devastating conclusion.
There’s no question that the craft of the film is exemplary. Hogg’s command of the narrative, both visually and dramaturgically, is masterful, especially in her ability to strip back dialogue and action to allow Julie’s inner world to play both on Swinton Byrne’s extraordinary face and the environment around her. The art of filmmaking is ever-present in the literal sense, the audience observing Julie in the process of creation, either writing or storyboarding or on set surrounded by equipment. We see her creating, but never what she creates. In more subtle ways, Hogg makes us aware of the artifice of ‘The Souvenir’ itself as a recreation, with sets that subtlety betray themselves as copies rather than reality. It’s a strange sensation, but it adds to the sense of something deeper at play, an interrogation of its own existence and the act of autobiography itself. It is film as memory, similar to what Guadagnino achieved in ‘Call Me By Your Name’ - the tactile quality of celluloid, the jumps in time, the visual distortion, the fading tones, the engagement with sight and sound and sensation as touchstones of remembering. The results are moments both absolutely sublime and surprisingly banal - when the self-awareness is subtle and potent (such as the astounding final two minutes), it leaves you breathless, while other moments feel obvious and clunky (like film students sitting around debating film theory). Perhaps their clunkiness is the point though, with the film once again pointing out its own artifice, but never making this intention clear enough for it to entirely work.
At the heart of ‘The Souvenir’ is a story of trauma, and how that trauma can shape the life and work of an artist. We are watching Hogg interrogate this defining relationship in her life through Julie and Anthony, taking it to pieces to understand its meaning and effect, and while the individual pieces are all fascinating in isolation, they never quite fit together properly. The chief issue is that Julie is so instantly arresting, in no small part due to the star-making performance from Honor Swinton Byrne, while Anthony is weirdly unlikeable, a brash, arrogant and manipulative man who puts Julie through a degree of emotional abuse even before his drug addiction takes over. Again, perhaps this is Hogg aiming for honesty in interrogating an important figure in her life, but we never given a clear lens through which to see Anthony, and watching Julie suffer physically, mentally and emotionally through it all is hard to stomach. The best moments of the film are when Anthony isn’t there. That isn’t a fault of Tom Burke, whose natural charms seep through, and he does have great chemistry with Swinton Byrne, but the issue with being able to connect with Anthony is foundational in both Hogg’s screenplay and her direction.
We’re also being led into a world that seems too far removed from our own, not in its time and setting, but in terms of Julie’s level of financial privilege. This may not be a fault of the film as much as a fault in my own person, but I found it hard to completely invest in a young emerging artist with so many advantages in her life, from a flat she doesn’t pay for to her ability to borrow hundreds of pounds in the 80s from her parents for camera equipment. The work she hopes to make also smacks of social privilege: portraits of poverty-stricken existence in lower-class communities thoroughly removed from her own. While that ignorance is interrogated to a slight degree in the film by asking why she doesn’t make films about her own world (again, perhaps a meta-text of ‘The Souvenir’ itself), the whole question of the privilege of Julie and those around her is hardly addressed, especially when the catastrophe at the end has nothing to do with it. There are many great films about privileged British people living privileged British lives, but they’re usually presented as fantasy or melodrama, of which ‘The Souvenir’ is neither. It’s an exceptionally well-made, beautifully realised drama balanced between realism and artifice, but without a sense of idealism, the privilege becomes a grating texture rather than a complementary one.
We are watching Hogg interrogate this defining relationship in her life through Julie and Anthony, taking it to pieces to understand its meaning and effect, but while the individual pieces are all fascinating in isolation, they never quite fit together properly.
This calls into question again the act of artistic autobiography. There’s no doubt in watching ‘The Souvenir’ that we’re witnessing something deeply personal, a work where the artist is attempting to cut as close to their own bone as possible. Some moments are shattering in their honesty, especially those around the relationship between Julie and her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, ‘Suspiria’), culminating in one of the most devastating and perfect lines of dialogue in years delivered by Swinton at the end of the film. I wonder though whether objectivity is the issue I have with the film. Does it need a further sense of it, making the framing of the narrative stronger and easier to penetrate, or less of it, an even further tumble into Julie’s inner world that allows us to see Anthony through her eyes rather than the objective lens of the camera? Should there have been less artifice, making it a more conventional drama, or more of it, embracing a greater awareness of itself as an act of personal recreation?
Even in the writing of this review, I continue to toss ‘The Souvenir’ around in my mind. I left the cinema disappointed and frustrated by it, wishing it had let me in more instead of simply presenting itself to me, but a friend had told me that it is a film that grows on you. I think they may have been right. The more I interrogate Joanna Hogg’s film, just as Joanna Hogg interrogates her own life, the more fascinating questions and provocations I find. Right now, I like the film more than love it, but I said the same a year ago about Chang-dong Lee’s ‘Burning’, and on my second viewing realised that was actually a masterpiece. I’m not sure the same will happen with ‘The Souvenir’, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, when you ask me my thoughts on it in a year, my answer may be different from what it is now. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of ‘The Souvenir' is that Hogg always intended for it to be a two-part film, with Part II currently filming. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t seen where else she intends to go, what is next in Julie’s development as an artist, how tragedy will shape her as an artist and as a human being. In that sense, despite its flaws, ‘The Souvenir’ may be one of the most interesting provocations in independent cinema in the last few years. The more I think about it, the more I’m keen to try it again, and the more I’m keen to see where Julie’s story goes next.