The Souvenir elicits responses that only the most finely tuned cinematic experience can coax.
Some films are like windows into another world while others function as mirrors, the best of them making it seem—perhaps uncannily so—that the filmmaker understands the viewer’s past or present. Joanna Hogg’s elegant, haunting new film, The Souvenir, is certainly a mirror, causing the viewer to identify with the youth reflected onscreen, even if they never were a female British film student in the 1980s. But, due in almost equal parts to Hogg’s delicate, sensitive writing and direction and a remarkable performance by Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film), The Souvenir elicits responses that only the most finely tuned cinematic experience can coax.
The Souvenir traces a love affair between Swinton Byrne’s young Julie and the older, charming Anthony (Tom Burke). Hogg’s eye rarely leaves Julie, and Swinton Byrne expertly portrays the confounding, sometimes simultaneous confidence and self-consciousness of youth. Every movement seems considered, even the way she inhabits her drab clothing. Anthony, on the other hand, initially appears both polished and sure of himself. But—and this makes more and more sense as the film progresses—Anthony never appears to be the central focus. We see him only as he relates to Julie. The reasons for this are satisfyingly layered; yes, this is Julie’s movie, and so we are simply experiencing the world as it comes at her, but Anthony is also less sturdy than he initially appears.
Over time, we learn Julie is a London film student from a wealthy background (Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth play her batty, privileged parents) while Anthony says he works for the government, but he doesn’t seem to come from the same social class as Julie. What we also learn is that Julie, while engaging and presumably talented in her chosen field, hasn’t yet found the true shape of her art. And more and more of Anthony’s character is revealed through the small moments in his interactions with Julie. A dinner will seem romantic, but a comment delivered in throwaway fashion will cast the whole evening into a different light. Their descent into a sort-of relationship is powerful as drama but also in how recognizable it is, how familiar it will be to viewers to see the vulnerability of trying to be young and in love.
Of course, being in love isn’t really what The Souvenir is about. It is about how a person forms into the person that they are. Hogg has narrowed the story down to a time in Julie’s life when she’s in a particularly potent state of becoming, a time of life when everything seems to be transformative. Julie sheds friends and distances herself from family because the combined power of attraction and manipulation is so dangerous at that age, and the result is relatably devastating.
Hogg, with the admirable support of director of photography David Raedeker, creates a period piece that looks authentic while also giving the scenes themselves a mood. The graininess of the shots makes it seem as if the events of the film are already nostalgia, that they are being recalled rather than lived. It can make things seem a little bit stuffy at times, but it works overall. And this approach makes sense, particularly if, as has been reported, this is something of an autobiographical project for Hogg. But that doesn’t really matter; whether she’s portraying her own youth or a completely imagined one, the way she films it is quietly beautiful.