REVIEW: The Souvenir [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes
    Release Date: August 30th, 2019 (UK)
    Studio: Curzon Artificial Eye / A24
    Director(s): Joanna Hogg
    Writer(s): Joanna Hogg

Very much in love.

Love is a powerful drug. There’s the unadulterated high when things are going good and the debilitating anguish upon suffering withdrawal. We chase the former and fall into bad habits to avoid the latter—sacrificing everything we want to achieve for ourselves in order to sustain a union we cannot fathom being without. So even though Anthony (Tom Burke) is the only one shooting heroin, he’s not the only addict drawn by The Souvenir‘s writer/director Joanna Hogg. As he constantly asks Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) for money under false pretenses, she follows suit with her (actual) mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton). He self-sabotages his life with her at the behest of his vice just as she risks her film school dreams to devote every ounce of energy to him.

Love is also proven blind considering it takes much too long for Julie to even realize what Anthony is. Half of this is due to an arrogant confidence on his part to draw her in with an alluring façade of mystery and success while also maintaining an intentional physical distance until feelings have been cemented to both hide his true self and coyly keep her wanting more. The other half stems from her rather sheltered and trusting upbringing as a daughter of affluence striking out on her own despite doing so in a way that never forgets the safety net set-up beneath her. So whether or not she knows what his track marks signify (she says she doesn’t), I’m not sure it would have mattered … until it does.

These are the rose-colored glasses we wear—the ones that refuse to believe the worst because they’re too busy basking in the best. Julie remembers the intellectual discourse, genuine compliments, and unwavering attention Anthony provides on his good days only to ignore his late night, hour-long sojourns preceded by a request for pocket money. His devotion and compassion overshadows his lies and deception. Actions that fall firmly in the camp of being his fault soon bleed over to her side as fear replaces anger. Because what would blaming him do? Anthony is Julie’s fix like heroin is his. She will stop at nothing to have it. She will hit rock bottom to keep it. And if she finds the strength to walk away, relapse always awaits.

The events Hogg places on-screen can be difficult to watch since we’re wired to wonder why Julie can’t see what we so easily do. That’s not to say we don’t fall prey to Anthony’s charms at the start too, though. We simply recognize the markers that threaten to prove how deceiving appearances are. But his ego and air of importance, while obnoxious, aren’t exactly abuse. So Julie in her youth (a twenty-something college student versus a man at least ten years her senior with a complicated past) isn’t to be reductively chastised for falling in love with some monstrous beast. And once she’s caught inside that relationship, her desire to stand by him despite the danger his problems pose is as admirable as it is disappointing.

This in itself is complex because Hogg isn’t interested in creating a villain. The Souvenir was born as a semi-fictional account of the filmmaker’s own years of artistic self-doubt at film school and passionate romances outside it, but it’s less about exorcizing demons than revealing them. Rather than paint Julie as being victimized by Anthony, she’s instead suffering at the hands of love and its ability to ignore present truths in lieu of potential futures. She grows sick with worry, exhaustion, and anxiety. She puts her passion on hold to become babysitter to his. Innocuous acquiescence quickly spirals towards aiding and abetting until it becomes too much to bear. Love is replaced by a rejection of loneliness while a fate mired in that loneliness becomes all but assured.

And this descent is complimented by a visual fracturing of space and time. So much of what’s spoken during Julie’s classes acts as a meta narrative to how Hogg crafted this film (building a plot from life before creating something new and combining real places with fictional events to approach truth), but nothing is more relevant than a discussion about Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho and how he alters his formal aesthetic to match what he’s trying to convey. When Hogg wants us to embrace the blossoming feelings shared by Julie and Anthony at the start, she portrays them in longer scenes of engaging conversation and awkward flirtation. As addiction begins unraveling things, however, the vignettes become abrupt, disjointed, and wild. Their love shifts from instrument to weapon.

Byrne is up to the task of showing this transformation despite it being her feature film debut. Hogg had yet to cast the role when talking with long-time friend Swinton about the project and listening to Honor speak about her own experiences before realizing the sort of thematic parallels that would help deliver the authenticity this character deserved. Julie is at once vulnerable and strong whether or not she’s in control of a situation or left to ride out the storm. This is therefore Byrne’s show because she’s asked to convey so much whether its frustration, confusion, hope, or helplessness. And she’s present for every second of the film to enjoy and/or endure whatever Hogg’s script treatment has thrown at her—the good, bad, and ugly.

While the final result can seem like a departure of sorts from Hogg’s previous films (the sense of place here is born from its characters rather than setting they inhabit), her trademarked style remains. Whether still frames of nature (accompanied by Julie reading love letters from Anthony) or a powerful scene of heavy emotion with off-screen drama forcing on-screen reaction, the singular vision that’s made her work into must-see events is unmistakable. There’s a purity to the performances too that’s surely augmented by Hogg’s penchant for collaboration without a true script to follow. We often shake our heads at what Julie does, but it’s not because her actions are unbelievable. On the contrary, it’s precisely because we’ve made those same mistakes that she demands our empathy.

[1] Photo by Sandro Kopp. Courtesy of A24
[2] Photo by Nikola Dove. Courtesy of A24
[3] Photo by Simone Falso. Courtesy of A24

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