Directed By Joanna Hogg
Starring – Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
The Plot – Julie (Byrne), A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man, named Anthony (Burke). She defies her protective mother (Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and adult language
– Non-linear storytelling. What’s so synthetically natural about the exposition in the film is that it’s delivered in a series of events in a girl’s life, rather than one cohesive running story that connects each scene together. This makes the screenplay at times feel like a jagged collection of memories, rather than a conventional story, and speaks volumes more towards the spontaneity of life that is constantly evolving. This requires audiences to pay attention to key images in the background, as well as stay fully committed in the unraveling of each conversation, otherwise the answers don’t fill in with the question properly. Not everything that happens in detail is shown on-screen, and I greatly appreciate any film that makes the audience work hard for its answers, refusing to spoon-feed us like nearly every film does today with its valued exposition.
– Unorthodox camera angles. Hogg is definitely a director who loves her mirrors, and her use of incorporating them into nearly every scene is done so in a way that presents body movements and interactions in a more revealing perspective than we would normally receive shooting in front of our actors. Some of these shots are truly breathtaking in capturing the dynamic that is slightly off focus, all the while studying the change in tonal temperature that is present in the foreground, giving us a complete picture of the dramatic pulse that is transpiring between these two people learning about each other for the first time. In addition to this, the personal reflection shots off a POV angle, where the character’s are speaking to us the audience, putting us front-and-center in the heat of the moment to better convey the love, anguish, and humility developed from its many conflicts.
– Stimulating performances. Before I even start on the performances that were out of this world, I commend the casting agent for casting Tilda Swinton’s real life daughter as her daughter in the movie. This not only transcends the art that is persistent on-screen, but cements the visual believability better than it could ever possibly be. For my first film seeing her, Honor Swinton Byrne completely blew me away. From a once reserved girl on the verge of her sexual and creative awakening, to the life-tested control she exerts over every angle of her life, this woman harvested a constant plunge of gut-wrenching emotional pull that not only made you invest in her character, but also created a deeper narrative for the personal battle taking place inside of her, courtesy of some timely narration that was appreciated. Her male opposite is also played wonderfully by Tom Burke, another first timer for me personally, who juggled the bi-polar complexities that his character moved through like a roller-coaster, thanks in whole to a drug influence that depicted his change emotionally and physically before our very eyes. The chemistry between Honor and Burke not only felt rich with honesty because of the many trysts they are forced to endure, but also advantageous to both actors who capture our attention with facial expressions that tell the story long before dialogue ever could. Tilda Swinton’s physical performance, donning a grey wig and wrinkle prosthetics, also radiates with an essence of natural aging and seamless delivery that transforms what we’ve expected from the actress before our very eyes. It’s cool to see the two generations of Swinton dominate the screen, and outlines a relationship that is a loveletter to mothers everywhere who go from protector to protected as time carries on.
– Story within the story. This is a film that feels very personal to Hogg, for the way it spiritualizes the highs and lows of first time love, and upon further digging, Hogg has clearly expressed herself from the trials and tribulations of a similar story that she took from her own life growing up. The flat used in the film is a perfect replica of the one Hogg lived in during that same age, constructed in an airplane hanger that is continuously projecting 35 mm photographs that she took as a student in her 20’s. She is a London film student similar to the female protagonist in the film, and actually was best friends with Tilda since both of them were ten years old. I mention this as a positive because I’ve always felt that the best told stories stem from real life experiences, and there’s a certain articulation to the psychology, as well as authenticity to the specific detail, that speaks volumes to the nourishment of a particular experience, and I find it therapeutic for Hogg that she was able to bring so much of her past experiences with her to the bettering of her picture.
– Effective production value. This film takes place in the 80’s, and to capture the aesthetic of such a specific time, the production crew uses a fine blend of grainy cinematography, a multitude of different camera lenses, and an attention to detail with wardrobe, decor, and soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the cocaine-driven 80’s nostalgia. There are parts in this film where the imagery encased remarkably transported me to where I legitimately felt like I was watching a shelved picture from the 80’s, and even with my picky eye for detail, I couldn’t find a single instance of any object or depiction that soiled the integrity of its unique time frame. The objects of the apartment are also documenting a story within their many shifts and disappearances that I don’t want to spoil here, and only mention because its brilliance used to channel maturity is something you rarely ever think about when it comes to set pieces during an aging story.
– Accurate depiction of first love. Some women will view the love depicted as ridiculous, but I feel like every woman has dated someone that today their wisdom would tell them differently, and that’s what I find so intoxicating about this relationship. We the audience feel leagues above the girl in terms of knowledge. We know what signs to look for, we know where everything is headed, and it’s that aspect that is frustrating but in a way that is entirely for our investment in the well-being of the character. There is no initial first spark really, it’s just that a guy is paying her attention at a party, and especially in the case of her being a virgin, that first time always exposes the vulnerability that women face, especially considering the kind of influence a look from him holds over her through the first half of this film. It’s not the most delightful watch in this regard, but no film should be shunned for its unabashed honesty, and this film has it in spades, reminding us behind every corner of the wisdom that she will gain because of her timultuous experiences.
– The judgment game. In Hogg’s ability to give us so little time with every supporting character, with the exception of the occasional party or on-set scene, the film manages this level of uncertainty with each of their intentions that puts as in the shoes of Honor’s Julie. Especially during the late second act, when a barrage of these characters received more time in front of the lens, I began to wonder who had her best intentions in mind, and who was there to be another Phil on the highway to her accomplishing her goals. This once again begs the audience member to invest themselves in the unraveling of these exchanges, making us feel as a parent of sorts to Julie’s newfound breath of escape, and it outlines a level of weightless suspense that feels beneficial to the film without smothering it in urgency. This feeds more into the idea of Hogg grounding this story so deeply in reality, as anyone who comes into our lives really is just a smiling face until we get to know them.
– Meaning behind the title. The title “The Souvenir” is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover into a tree. This painting is shown twice throughout the movie, and at least from a metaphorical stance can easily be emitted from what transpires in the way Anthony influences Julie throughout. Without spoiling anything, I took away a complex tone of permanent scarring from the painting, which alludes to the permanence of someone etched into the memory of the carver’s psyche, for better or worse. A film’s title should summarize everything enclosed within its walls of creativity, and the title used for Hogg’s nearly autobiographical feature is one that requires digging beneath the material if one is to fully understand the meaning of its message.
– The pacing. Especially the case in the first act of the film, the unorthodox nature of storytelling and event depiction is a bit of a jump to overcome when you’re getting settled in to a film’s style. In this reflection, if you can get through the opening half hour of the film, your investment will give way to the meatier material that fills the remainder of the film. With the romance in particular feeling so cryptic early on, there’s very little to bounce off of within the initial meetings between these two lovers, and even for editing that remains patient throughout the film, these first few scenes feel so dramatically slower than anything else that accompanies it.
– Musical incorporation. I didn’t care much for the film’s soundtrack, as the inclusion of pop tracks like “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs felt like such an unnecessary forcing into a film that is stripped down in reality without them. In a sense, the scenes with no musical incorporation helped maintain this slice of real life that so much of the film was buried in, and to add songs, especially ones as familiar with the decade as these, gives it an overbearing feeling of obviousness for time-stamped gimmick that this film doesn’t have to stretch itself for. If they were played during the party scenes, I would be fine with them, but their inclusions during moments of self-reflection for Julie, feel like an obvious distraction in the clarity of the situation.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+