Don’t be surprised when The Souvenir ends up on your favourite critic’s best-of-year list. The movie has been wowing audiences since its Sundance premiere. It’s a quasi-autobiographical tale about writer/director Joanna Hogg’s own life. Set during her film school years, the story plays out like a hazy memory. Hogg’s film offers a breakout performance, layers of rich themes to unpack, and production design that transports you. It’s also slow-paced and a challenging watch. Fans of Hogg’s previous work (Unrelated and Archipelago) should dive right in, while viewers with little patience for listless indie fare may want to pass this title up.
The Souvenir looks at the indiscretions of youth and highlights how the choices we make early in life ultimately shape us. This story focuses on Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young film school student who wants to tell stories about the world which exists outside her privileged bubble. Does an inexperienced filmmaker who runs back to her parents for handouts have the right to tell stories about the impoverished? Julie is working through those complicated notions.
Julie falls for a Foreign Office employee named Anthony (Tom Burke), a man who is as thoughtful and dashing as he is smug and condescending. From Anthony’s point of view, he brings a whole new perspective to Julie’s worldview and challenges her to step outside of herself. But Anthony’s tactics are manipulative, and he behaves like a bully.
If Hogg crafted one-dimensional characters, it would be easy to shake your fist at the screen and yell, “What is Julie thinking?” But much like in real life, people contain multitudes, and Anthony isn’t just another toxic male. A smitten Julie sees her new guy through rose-coloured glasses. The young couple wine and dine together, travel, discuss art, and fall deeply in love.
It’s not long before their relationship takes a darker turn. Anthony keeps borrowing money, disappears for long periods, and shows up with bruises on his arms. The audience already knows this man’s story, so it’s that much harder to watch Julie drown in a sea of naivety. We know this story won’t have a happy ending. And we sit and patiently wait for Julie to arrive at the same conclusion.
The Souvenir may not be Hogg’s literal autobiography, but it feels deeply personal. It’s the work of a filmmaker fictionalizing their origin story. Hogg follows Julie’s first steps down the road to self-actualization; a young woman discovering her values, an artist finding her voice, and a lover discovering her boundaries.
The moments that wound Julie will one day inform her worldview – for better and for worse. The story at the centre of The Souvenir is recognizable to most forty-somethings. Hogg, now a seasoned filmmaker looks back at her younger, rudderless self. She highlights a point in life you need years of distance from to put into proper perspective. You have to date an asshole or three to see one coming from a mile away. Only after dealing with a bullshiter do you learn to step around their bullshit. Julie, with her self-doubts and drug addict boyfriend, is knee-deep in bullshit.
Over and over again, we watch men seek to control Julie’s behaviour. There is plenty of man-splaining in this movie, and one wishes Julie would rise up and shove these blowhards’ toxic masculinity right back down their throats. But it’s not that type of movie. Hogg points out the many ways men try to inform how Julie expresses herself. It’s a major theme in the film, but it never feels as though she’s hitting you over the head with the recurring message. It’s as subtle as Julie’s lover Anthony surprising her with a box of lingerie. Anthony may present Julie with a gift-wrapped box, but he’s objectifying her for his own sexual gratification. The gift is all about him.
Hogg and DP David Raedeker create the sense that it’s a man’s world, and Julie is meekly making her way through it. Hogg is always looking for visual representations of her protagonist’s vulnerability. We often see Julie isolated in the frame, as though stranded on an island, as groups of people size her up or talk down to her. A soft, fuzzy, dream-like look, adds to The Souvenir’s distinct visual style. And Raedeker employs plenty of long static shots that soak up the desaturated colour palette.
At times it’s as though Hogg has thrown any sense of structure out the window. Certain sequences feel like they go on forever while clarifying little of Julie’s thought process. Hogg’s goal is to construct a waking dream. And how many times have you woken up unable to remember what you just dreamed of, but still overcome with intense feelings? The Souvenir is less about plot than tuning audiences into Hogg’s contemplative frequency. This film will either lull you into its meditative rhythms or leave you tapping your foot and checking your watch.