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The Souvenir feels like a serious tipping point for director Joanna Hogg. This is the fourth feature from Hogg, and yet it’s imbued with the sincerity and staggering creative energy of a directorial debut. Those familiar with Hogg’s filmography will find an invigorating shift from her standard style into one that is bolder and less restrained. Gone are the long static wide shots that had become her hallmark, gone is the crystal clear digital cinematography. Instead, we see an approach that is up-close, personal, and shot on film. All of this makes sense, given the story that Hogg brings to life is more auto-biographical and intense than anything she has ever made before.
The plot, inspired by Hogg’s own experiences, follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young aspiring director pushing to find her voice as she works on her first feature film. On this path of discovery, she comes across the charming and enigmatic Anthony (Tom Burke) and the two become romantically entangled in a relationship that oozes toxicity. The film trails Julie’s attempts to pursue her dream while navigating this torturous love affair. Throughout the journey, we get glimpses at her family life and her relationship with her mother (Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother as well). This story of an artist’s creative pursuit clashing against the backdrop of young love gone awry seems simple at first, but there is a staggering cinematic exuberance and a vibrant emotional immediacy that stays with you long after the credits roll.
At a Q&A following the sneak preview at Film at Lincoln Center, Tilda Swinton remarked that the film is more about the way that we remember events rather than the way that they may have actually happened. This idea of memory shows itself through numerous wonderful sequences that evoke these nostalgic yearnings: streetlights swirl, cityscapes float in water, rain weeps across a windshield, and elevator doors open and shut like chapters of a book. Hogg swiftly cuts through the development of Julie and Anthony’s relationship capturing flashes at a time, mirrored by shots of Julie simultaneously recording the very same moments either on film or in photographs. Much of the foundations for the story were built from photos, notes, and letters Hogg had kept from a very real relationship which had left a permanent and dramatic impact.
One of the most powerful ways in which this background enters the film is the presence of love letters from Anthony which are read in voiceover over a still and sparse landscape. These moments are staggered throughout the film and function as a juxtaposition to Anthony’s cruel tendencies. If the film is to be understood as a journey through Julie’s memories and mementos, then these letters act as immutable statements from Anthony. They are a cemented vision of how he saw the world and his personal record of the relationship. These types of reflective interludes are ubiquitous in Hogg’s filmography but perhaps are most refined here as they intertwine with the narrative helping to build to a final sequence that is as subtle as it is grand.
Hogg’s films have always been marked by a loose approach that prioritizes authenticity and realism by using non-actors and improvisation. Archipelago featured a real cook and Hogg’s own painting instructor playing major characters, Exhibition had a musician and an artist as the stars of the film, and The Souvenir is no different in setting first-time actress Honor Swinton Byrne as the protagonist. Swinton Byrne grounds the film with a captivatingly honest performance that mirrors Hogg’s own candor in bringing such a personal story to the screen. The sincerity of this performance is further enhanced by Hogg’s decision to film chronologically, while hiding aspects of the narrative from Swinton Byrne, allowing her to discover major plot-points in the very moment of filming. Even with the pedigree of being Tilda Swinton’s daughter, it’s still shocking how sophisticated and tender Swinton Byrne’s performance is given that she has never acted before.
Meanwhile, Tom Burke, who is no stranger to acting, having appeared in numerous British television productions and films, disappears into the character of Anthony with unnerving ease. He teases a heart-rending viciousness that lurks beneath a blanket of dry wit. If Swinton Byrne’s Julie serves as the heart of the film, Burke’s Anthony is the poison dagger piercing it. The finely curated soundtrack underscores this point: ‘I’m like poison ivy, I can break out all over you‘, croons a Buddy Guy record as we watch the relationship sour. Burke’s performance will likely be compared to Daniel Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock from Phantom Thread, but the delicate tones and variances of Burke’s delivery are arguably even more finely tuned making him absolutely engrossing to watch.
Ultimately, Hogg is a director that is sophisticated and experienced enough to assemble all of these fascinating elements into a brilliantly cohesive whole. Everything seems to click together, from the bravura filming style that seamlessly blends 16mm footage and still photographs, all the way to the improvisational nearly script-less approach that somehow still feels meticulously masterful. Joanna Hogg’s filmography has always carried an incisive bite, but so often there has been a remarkable distance in her work keeping the audience an arm’s length away. This time around, however, there’s a ferociousness at play, and The Souvenir goes straight for the throat. It’s a fearless work delivered with aplomb by a director who has been steadily honing her craft for the last thirty years, and one can’t help but feel that Joanna Hogg is just getting started.
The Souvenir comes out in limited release this Friday May 17th.
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