Unfortunately the script veers too far into the understated and predictable.
Isabelle Huppert has acted in five or more films in each of the past two years. Few actors can boast such a string of roles, but Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir truly is the reminder that the goal should always be quality over quantity. Visually, it’s a low-key affair that allows the actors to command attention rather than the setting imposing itself upon the story, but unfortunately the script written by Defurne, Jacques Boon and Yves Verbraeken veers too far into the understated and predictable.
Huppert stars as Liliane, a quiet woman in her sixties with a surprising secret. By day, she works in a pâté factory meticulously placing garnishes. By night, she watches quiz shows and perks up when she hears a question about “Laura,” a former chanteuse who sang for France during the Eurovision song contest. According to the quiz show, she “sank into oblivion,” but as Liliane’s coworker—aspiring boxer Jean Leloup (Kévin Azaïs)—discovers, oblivion looks a lot like the pâté factory. He bungles his first attempts to speak to the ‘70s-era one-hit-wonder, highlighting her age with comments about his father being a big fan. But his persistence wins a sly smile from Liliane, and she hesitantly opens up to him about her onetime brush with fame.
In a plot development that is anything but realistic, a request to sing at Jean’s father’s club turns into a career comeback for Liliane. A lightweight struggling to go pro, Jean takes it upon himself to put his zero-experience to work as Liliane’s manager. Amidst all of this, Liliane and Jean’s relationship becomes sexual, and Liliane elicits the help of her ex-husband to write a new song for her triumphant contest return. The chorus is a painful ode to a younger man, “Pretty boy/ I say yes!/ Arms of concrete/ I say yes!”
The film intends to provide commentary on the way society talks about forgotten stars and the nature of fleeting fame, but Defurne allows the sexual relationship aspect of the script to overshadow things. Sure, there’s plenty of frankly harsh talk about Laura as a “phoenix of pop” in the process of “emerging from a pile of ash.” But just as Liliane is chasing her former glory, she also chases her youth. Her visit to her ex-husband (also a contest judge) is strictly professional, but Liliane strives to recreate the same persona she had decades ago, wearing similarly slim, glitzy gowns and miming forced accompanying hand gestures while singing. It’s what worked before, but it’s hard to imagine why. Ironically, Laura was a fleeting pop star, but Souvenir gives us little reason to see the pop appeal.
Then there’s her relationship with Jean, which is equal parts lust and misplaced idolatry. Certainly, as Laura, she made plenty of legitimate entertainment industry connections. Defurne attempts to close this plot hole by explaining the fallout of Liliane’s divorce, but it’s hard to believe a failed boxer is her best choice for a manager. Why should she even be managed by a man that she’s sexually involved with, again, anyway? But Defurne wants to cultivate this boozy artist persona for Liliane—the reason for her first demise—the ultimate implication, whether intentional or not, being that Liliane needs a manhandler to wrangle her if she’s going to last in the music business.
The biggest pitfall in Souvenir is that Liliane’s desires are obscured by the many things she agrees to do for Jean’s sake. Huppert’s disaffected chanteuse performance only adds to the imbalance between Liliane’s desires and her largely self-destructive actions. For better or worse, the attention of a younger man allows her to conceive of the possibility of restarting her career, but there’s a reason why, once there, she falls back on old habits.