Over the course of three features—2007’s Unrelated, 2010’s Archipelago and 2013’s Exhibition—writer/director Joanna Hogg has established herself as a unique chronicler of estranged middle-class British men and women struggling with privilege, amorous and familial relationships, and their (literal and figurative) place in their worlds. Though her fondness for formal abstractness has occasionally teetered over into affectation (see: Exhibition), her work is marked by a careful balance between realism and impressionism, and with her latest, she marries those disparate modes—and many other diverse artistic forms and inspirations—to masterful effect.
Opening on May 17 (following an acclaimed debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival), The Souvenir is the coming-of-age story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a single Londoner in her early twenties with dreams of being a filmmaker. As elucidated by an introductory sequence of old photographs set to her narration, Julie intends to make a movie about a young boy living near the run-down shipyards of Sunderland who’s obsessed with his mother, and whose infatuation proves destructive (echoing his surroundings) once his mom passes away. A film school teacher will later articulate what’s obvious from the get-go: this is a tale divorced from Julie’s own well-to-do upbringing in southeast England. He advises her to seek out a project in which she can make the vital connection between her own experiences and the fictional one she’s trying to commit to film—an endeavor in which Hogg is also clearly engaged.
Little does this professor know that Julie actually has much in common with her male protagonist, thanks to her romantic affair with Anthony (Tom Burke). Prone to wearing pinstriped suits, long overcoats, and the sporadic bowtie, Anthony comes across as a suave older man brimming with confidence. After meeting at one of her parities—his questions about her film laced with pointed judgment that she takes as constructive criticism—he and Julie are soon dining at ritzy restaurants (which he’s undoubtedly chosen), visiting museums where she admires a painting dubbed “The Souvenir” (about a woman carving her initials into a tree after receiving a letter from her lover), and living together, first as friends and then as romantic partners.
Hogg doesn’t waste time on the in-between stuff of her drama, cutting away from scenes and dropping in on others with bracing abruptness. This invariably leaves one feeling a bit lost about particular conversations, which are joined midway through, and then discarded for more pertinent dialogue or action. Yet that’s far less important than the sense of fly-on-the-wall intimacy created by this strategy. At the same time, Hogg’s camera harmonizes itself with its subjects, at first gliding and trembling in tune with Julie’s youthful exuberance and openness, and then becoming increasingly static and poised—albeit no less expressive—once she and Anthony settle into their life together in her cozy apartment in London’s affluent Knightsbridge district.
Anthony is, quite apparently, a pompous man who loves to put on airs. Nonetheless, because Julie falls for his dapper-cultured routine, and because she’s still a young, naïve woman—intermittently borrowing money from her mother Rosalind (Byrne’s real-life mom Tilda Swinton), herself sheltered from the world’s intricacies (“It’s all so complicated!” she exclaims about political violence)—Julie takes Anthony’s arrogance in stride. That’s a considerable feat, considering that his comments range from appraisals aimed at subtly putting her down and elevating himself, or compliments designed to make him look good. Via a series of superficially innocuous incidents and remarks, The Souvenir conveys the highly-specific nature of Julie’s feelings for Anthony—an unhealthy mix of awestruck admiration, intimidation, and excitement over being admired by such a refined individual. And those feelings continue even after she discovers needle marks in his arm (which she can’t even identify as such), and then is told outright by one of his friends (a cameoing Richard Ayoade) that he’s a recreational heroin user.
Anthony’s habit is a sign of catastrophic things to come, but The Souvenir is less concerned with masking its outcome than with empathetically charting Julie’s interior state—and the precise dynamics of her and Anthony’s bond—through a striking blend of different modes, à la a film school instructor who praises the varied, unconventional approach Hitchcock employed for Psycho. Setting its drama to a soundtrack that blends opera, blues and rock (including amusing use of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”), switching to grainy 16mm imagery for sights seen from Julie’s POV, and presenting recurring landscape shots (embellished with Julie’s beguiling narration) and instances of visual doubling, the film takes a stylistically daring approach to its up-close-and-personal portrait.
Hogg’s film doesn’t shy away from the bourgeoisie pretensions and shortcomings of its protagonists. However, it has genuine empathy for Julie and Anthony’s alternately close and withdrawn condition, which is expressed by compositions that take advantage of the wall that separates their apartment’s kitchen and living room, as well as alienating (and, ultimately, liberating) doorways. Moreover, Hogg peppers the proceedings with talk about movies and the process of moviemaking, until Julie’s creative endeavor becomes entrancingly intertwined with her own—culminating in a penultimate push into close-up, as an on-screen cinematographer pushes into his own close-up, that’s nothing short of breathtaking.
A sequence in which Julie follows notecards (decorated with arrows) from her front door to her upstairs window, at which point a sudden bomb explosion rattles the city, speaks to the couple’s volatility. News reports and chitchat about terrorism further suggest that detonations seem to be right around the corner. Danger is everywhere, through canny insinuations lurking in characters’ spoken words, and lingering around the edges of their sensitive, communicative eyes. Much is left unsaid in The Souvenir, but little isn’t understood—or felt, painfully and powerfully.
Burke magnifies his posh egotism with nonchalant body language, and it’s hard not to laugh—derisively—at his blather, which masks controlling nastiness and selfishness beneath a veneer of care and concern. And as a mother increasingly concerned about her daughter’s circumstances, Swinton, appearing in only a few scenes, is predictably pitch-perfect, using charged glances and uncomfortable comportment to impart the things she doesn’t dare overtly communicate.
Above all, The Souvenir is a vehicle for Swinton Byrne’s magnificent performance. With a commanding presence that’s all the more remarkable for its vulnerability and malleability, Byrne inhabits Julie as a woman striving to learn about herself via a relationship she seems to recognize is doomed, and yet can’t quit, in part because she understands the messy stew of positive and negative things it’s given and taken from her. She doesn’t attempt to justify Julie’s actions, or to reconcile her contradictions—with heartfelt sincerity and subtle caginess, she evokes her character’s inner tumult while, like a born movie star, leaving us wanting more.