The Souvenir is that rare kind of great film, one that teaches you how to watch it as it goes on. There’s a constant tension between precise, careful framing and offhand, casual observation. Small details and gestures accumulate gradually, inviting you to sink into the film, luxuriate in it. Writer-director Joanna Hogg and cinematographer David Raedeker have given the film a ghostly, overcast look, all concrete grays and shimmering blacks, with colors receding into the background. The film is a mixture of digital, 16mm, and Super 8, all of which contributes to its old, slightly faded aesthetic, with a shallow depth of field that resembles portrait photography. Loosely autobiographical, The Souvenir follows young Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, mesmerizing in a difficult role) as she begins film school and starts dating an older man, the rakish and disarmingly charming Anthony (Tom Burke). Julie, like many young artists, is desperate to live outside her comfortable, upper class existence and find some sense of authenticity, however nebulous the concept might be. Anthony is a kind of window to that world, and he wields that allure as a weapon, using Julie and her family’s money to fuel his drug habit.
Hogg charts the ups and downs of this relationship, as her film frequently jumps forward in time, eliding weeks or even months with a single cut. It’s destabilizing, reflecting Julie’s own disorientation with the wily Anthony (Hogg has learned a lot from Bresson, excising everything that is unnecessary in a certain scene or shot). Anthony is not without his merits, of course, otherwise his manipulations wouldn’t work. For her part, Swinton Byrne has a difficult tight rope to walk, making Julie naïve but not stupid, fragile but not weak, intelligent but not always articulate. It’s a realistic, if sometimes unflattering, portrait of a doomed coupling, one that most people can probably relate to in the abstract, if not in its specifics. Ultimately, we are to take the title of the film literally. The heightened emotions, the lies, the heartache, the lust and romance, all these things we will take with us into the future, looking back occasionally with the benefit of age and, hopefully, some wisdom. Time does not heal all wounds, but it does recontexualize them, transforming them into something else.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 5.