(dir/wr: Joanna Hogg; starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade)
“I think she looks determined. And very much in love.”
Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature, The Souvenir, opens with the main character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, mesmerising), pondering the subject of a film she’d like to make. It’ll be about a young boy in Thatcher’s Sunderland – a story of crisis, survival, and death. A story, she’ll later agree, driven by her fascination with rot.
Set in early 1980s London, this is a fascinating exercise in auto-fiction. Film student Julie (initials JWH, the same as Hogg’s) must balance her studies with a life-changing relationship with an enigmatic older man, Anthony, played by Tom Burke. He sweeps her off her feet, taking her the the classiest restaurants money can buy, whisking her through the the halls of the Wallace Collection to show her his favourite artwork – The Souvenir. To begin with things have a fairytale atmosphere. Later, their meals together will be paid for by Julie.
All of this closely resembles a similar relationship from the director’s student days. Though Hogg has resisted naming Anthony’s real-life counterpart, it’s tempting to assume that he shares his fictional twin’s initials – ANG, emblazoned on everything from his top-of-the-line luggage to his refined velvet slip-ons.
Reckoning with this relationship, and the place it holds in her life, is ostensibly the core of the film. But The Souvenir is more than that. There are ethical dilemmas and painful choices to be made in drawing upon such material. Using real tragedy and episodes of darkness from one’s personal life is not unusual in cinema, but Hogg’s masterstroke is to directly address that in the subtext of the film, making use of Julie’s film studies to comment on the process of adaptation the quandaries it throws up.
And so, like Julie’s planned (and, later, abandoned) film, The Souvenir is a story of crisis, survival and death. Hence we are drawn to wonder if perhaps Julie is somewhat complicit – if she is a little more fascinated with “the rot” than she can admit to herself; a little keen to turn someone else’s story, and pain, into her art.
This self-interrogatory mode plays through the film, with two strands commenting on each other and on themselves. The Souvenir is a ghost story, in which the 1980s Julie and 2010s Joanna haunt each other across time, watching each other across the valley between reality and fiction. We are witness to an eerie time-slip – one presaged by the ultimate fate of ANG.
The most obvious arc in The Souvenir is the one that tracks Julie’s relationship with Anthony, a drolly flashy gentleman who (probably) works at the Foreign Office and (definitely) has a significant heroin problem – an addiction that may stem from a stint embedded with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Anthony is a controlling character who nonetheless needs to be mothered, and Julie is happy both to be controlled and to mother him, in a kind of dysfunctional push-pull dynamic.
It’s a remarkably well-rendered portrait of an addiction-enabling relationship with a significant structural power imbalance. Both actors improvise around the storyline as it unfolds. Swinton Byrne is astonishing, given that she wasn’t allowed a script in advance, to better capture a sense of being discombobulated. Burke, who was able to do more research in advance on the real ‘ANG’, gives a performance that must have wrung him out completely. He leaves everything on the screen; it’s no wonder he needed time to recuperate after the shoot. The quiet intensity, broken up later on by brief sequences of howling and weeping, burn with emotional exhaustion.
However, there is another arc that on a first pass might seem secondary, but which is perhaps the more significant story. This is story of Julie’s (and, hence, Joanna’s) growth as a young woman and as a filmmaker. Era-specific cinephile references abound – an early scene at a house party shows Julie’s lodger’s girlfriend dressed like Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. But more significantly, numerous scenes of Julie discussing film – with her lecturers, her classmates, Anthony – are filled with disguised commentary on The Souvenir itself.
A discussion of Psycho’s editing emphases (erroneously) that we never “see the knife go in” – and it’s true also that we never see Anthony shooting up in The Souvenir, we only see the aftermath (and three quick shots of the escalating state of his arm). Flashes to a romantic rendezvous in Venice give a hint of Don’t Look Now, but with the warmth drained and replaced with a chilly, depressed eroticism.
“These people are real,” says Julie/Joanna, in one particularly meta-textual conversation, “but I’m using them to say what I want to say.”
“I’m a big fan of Powell and Pressburger…” counters Anthony, “I think they’re very truthful, without being real.”
Ironically, a lot of what Anthony says about his life, and his motivations, may not be real, or truthful, or both. Later he posits “I don’t think that sincerity is enough. I mean, we can all be ‘sincere’, but what’s it all for?”
We are repeatedly given this sense that Anthony lives inside a persona, and that he rationalises that constucted persona as a valid form of truth. But rather than entirely dismiss that as the working of a seducer, or quasi-hustler, Hogg allows it to reflect a heartfelt sense that art can be true without being real. By that score, perhaps Anthony is simply living his life as a form of art, which could be one definition of Romanticism.
As we approach the end of the film, in fact, we see her listening very attentively to a classmate (Ariane Labed, from Alps, Attenberg, The Lobster and Before Midnight) enthusing with great passion about that great anti-realistic film movement, cinema du look. Labed’s character praises Diva (1981) for its use of commercial film grammar to effectively deliver entertainment and meaningful emotion; another classmate agrees and throws Subway into the mix. This shift in Julie’s interest from archly “sincere” grainy black-and-white 16mm cinema vérité towards cinema du look’s glossy artifice shows a break from what Anthony patronisingly yet accurately calls her “preconceived notions” of what cinema should be and what a director should do. There’s nothing in the film that’s unsympathetic to that shift – although perhaps we’ll find out more about Hogg’s perspective in The Souvenir Part 2.
This arc of artistic development points towards Julie/Joanna being able to eventually make the film that we are in fact watching, with it’s blend of reality and unreality, and truth through artifice. The flat Julie lives in is a recreation of Joanna’s Knightsbridge flat, real yet artificial, with the view through the windows consisting of massively enlarged copies of photographs that Joanna took at the time.
But elsewhere this the value of artificiality is strongly questioned. Anthony’s wields his love of artifice and insincerity over Julie, as a tool in his power games. Of his need to move in with her he breezily says “It’s to do with my work – it’s quite hard to explain. In fact, I can’t explain it.” We never quite rid ourselves of the idea that he’s a grifter, engaged in some kind of semi-true long con. Or perhaps that’s what he thinks life is.
Yet this whimsical playfulness is for him and him alone, and Anthony sets the rules to his own benefit. He flips the board when she tries to best him at his own game, deliberately upsetting her when she teasingly inquires after his previous girlfriends. He switches conversational modes to disorient her – a tactic that only works because of his perceived authority – and Julie is reduced to non-verbal communication, blowing raspberries at him.
“I’m just playing, Julie” he teases, laconically, but the game-playing is a front, a tactic – he must retain control. Nowadays we would call this gaslighting, or grooming. At one point he even gets her to apologise to him, after he has burgled their shared flat, advising her to “get your head around it, because I have nothing more to add”. He hovers, nosily, as she is checked by a doctor for an STI. He turns up his nose when she plays a John Cooper Clark track – soon the air is filled with his preferred choice: Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
Anthony is truly a manipulator par excellence, but we retain sympathy and never once doubt that Julie loves him and that he, in his won way, loves her. As his addiction develops, his ability to manipulate convincingly is gradually robbed from his. On one of a number of occasions where he needs Julie to drive him to a drug purchase she (remarkably naively) asks “Is this for work?”
“It’s for the work, yes” he replies, trying perhaps to give a slight twist to her wording to turn it into something halfway true. Failing, he spouts meaningless nonsense.
As Julie grows within herself she is increasingly unafraid to challenge him. “I know you have a received notion of who I’m supposed to be,” he whines, when she notices he seems to be high.
“I know who you are,” she counters, now able to resist his efforts to make her doubt her reality, “and you’re not yourself.”
Elsewhere, Tilda Swinton is wonderful has Julie’s mother, Rosalind, with her Hermes scarf and Barbour jacket. Rosalind reflexively checks her daughter’s nails, instinctively infantilising her. It is that infantilisation that Julie will need to break out of if she is to avoid being crushed by her relationship with Anthony. Yet it is perhaps by recreating that mothering instinct that she is able to handle him, taking care of him through his periodic throes of withdrawal.
This sense that Julie has been gifted both dangerous weaknesses and hidden strengths by her mother is a poignant grace note to the film as a whole. The one time the camera fails to follow Julie it settles on her mother instead. As Julie pops downstairs to pin a note to her front door, we pan over to Rosalind instead, and peep at her through a doorway, sitting on the spare bed. She remains in stasis, silent and motionless as the seconds tick by. Then Julie returns and she’s up on her feet again. The shot is a quiet love letter, and you sense Hogg’s deep emotional tribute to her own mother, the film’s silence saying more than words.
The Souvenir offers a world of beautifully observed details – Chyna Terrelonge Vaughn as Tamara, picking at a bunch of grapes whilst quietly listening and observing at a dinner party; Richard Ayoade as Patrick suggesting that Britain’s failure to produce a proper musical is “almost impressive.” A number of those details relate to class – Julie’s family seems to hover at the point where the upper middle class meet the lower upper class; Anthony’s likewise.
There’s not a lot of explicit interrogation of class – save for one lecturer’s snotty remark that Julie probably won’t need to worry about her film budget as she’s living in Knightsbridge – but it’s everywhere, and implicitly accounts for her family’s relaxed attitude to the relationship. After all, if he comes from good stock, we can imagine them thinking, it’s all probably fine.
The Souvenir‘s subtle, yet pervasive sense of nostalgia is reinforced by the way time seems to have concertinaed in the film’s memory. The film at a first glance seems to have taken place over a year or so – at once point it’s suggested that Julie’s relationship troubles with Anthony have distracted her from her studies for about six months. Yet on closer inspection the time-frame is a truer-to-life five years, from 1980 (specified in a letter, read in voice-over, as the year Anthony fell in love with Julie) to 1985 (clarified by a conversation in which Diva (1981) was released four years ago, and Subway (1985) has just come out). Part way through we hear the explosion of the 1983 Harrods bombing by the IRA, and a radio discusses the 1984 siege of the Libyan embassy.
This sense of temporal disorientation is encouraged by the way it almost always seems to be Christmas – and a particularly 80’s Sloaney Christmas at that, with Stop the Cavalry and 2,000 Miles on the soundtrack, and the lights of Harrods and Peter Jones glittering all around. There’s even an occasional anachronism – at one point an acquaintance laughs that “haters are gonna hate”, which surely wasn’t a phrase in the early 1980s. At another point Julie and Anthony discuss Patrick and his wife, although the dinner party they are referring to seems to have occurred around three years previously. This all adds to the sense of a romance viewed through the haze of memory, with moments sliding into each other.
For in memory, as in art, time, identity and truth are able to destabilise and flow through each other – much as, when Anthony moves into Julie’s flat, we see them walk past mirrors waiting to be put up, their reflections and real selves flowing into each other. Perhaps, although though they were ultimately unable to “share the beast together” as true equals, part of ANG lives on in JWH, in the form of everything he taught her – those lessons he meant to, and those he didn’t.
This film is wonderful – a confident, focused, rigorous, heartfelt howl of anguish. The sheer unshowy craft of the film is remarkable. The blocking and framing are beautiful, perfectly balancing the romance, the distance of time, the nostalgia, the chilliness of Anthony’s control mechanisms and the warmth of their affection.
Hogg is able to elicit incredible performances from every single cast member – Swinton Byrne is incredible in what’s effectively her feature debut, and Burke is a revelation. At times they seem like peas in a pod, but their scenes together elicit a quiet emotional grandeur, charged by their hidden binary opposition. As Julie slowly homes in on honest self knowledge, Anthony hides behind his shtick, and this sea-saw dynamic allows Julie to eventually stand toe to toe as Anthony’s equal, and he has no power over her that she does not wish to give.
Tilda Swinton is as good as she’s ever been, and I don’t think anyone has ever made such good use of Ayoade, taking his comic rhythms and dialling them down into a serious dramatic register. I could luxuriate for hours in his wonderful self-impressed dialogue.
Ultimately, then, The Souvenir is a triumph. It’s only August, but this might just be the best film of 2019.
(One final remark: the early 80s costumes are great, so it was nice to see Kennington’s Earl of Bedlam get a shout-out in the credits. I bought a brown derby via them once, and very nice it was too.)