movie review

The Souvenir Is Sometimes Formless, But Always Fascinating

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

The British writer-director Joanna Hogg has the courage of her incoherence. Her scaffolding is shaky and her vantage often oblique. She cuts from foggy panoramas to tight close-ups with no evident pattern. You can never anticipate her next shot or even if she’ll linger in the same time and place. (Maybe she’ll jump ahead a couple of days.) Because she rarely moves the camera, you might well feel marooned with people you don’t know for reasons you don’t understand. Are her actors improvising? Sometimes they seem to be fumbling along with their characters, headed down irrelevant byways. But unfocused she’s not. At her best — which is more often than you can imagine — Hogg convinces you that incoherence is the only honest way to tell a story with any emotional complexity. She spoils you for the overshapers, the spoon-feeders.

Her auto-fictional fourth theatrical feature, The Souvenir, was made just shy of her 60th year: It’s a leap back in time but with new, meta implications, hints at how her sense of formlessness was formed. The movie is never not fascinating. Hogg’s protagonist, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is a 24-year-old rich girl with a Knightsbridge apartment who wants to make a film about a boy growing up by the grotty docks of Sunderland, south of Newcastle. Quizzed by authority figures skeptical of her choice to stray so far from her own experience, Julie speaks of her insularity, her class privilege, her need to cultivate a socially conscious aesthetic. In her apartment, she pores over black-and-white footage of working-class boys in a schoolyard, leaning into her manual typewriter (it’s the 1980s) and struggling to concoct a story line. You’re not meant to laugh at her pretensions, only to register her distance from the world. One day her building is shaken by an IRA bomb explosion some blocks away; she gazes from her window at the smoke and can hear people screaming — so near but so far.

On the other hand, the people who question Julie’s motivation for telling this story are Men Who Explain Things to Her. One of them — seen only from the back at first — is particularly foppish. Perched across from Julie in a tony government building (is she applying for a grant?), he holds forth in a plummy voice on her proposed characters (“Why are they more real than me?”) and wonders whether she’s trying to peddle a “received idea of life on the docks.” He’s laughable, and his moves don’t seem to be working on her at all (“You’re very special, Julie.” “Very normal, really.” “You’re a freak.” “I think I’m quite average.” “You’re lost, and you’ll always be lost”), but before you know it, he has asked to bunk down in her apartment while doing government work. After some cute business invoking “the walls of Jericho” from It Happened One Night, said walls come down and Julie and the fop—his name is Anthony (Tom Burke) — are a couple, at which point at least one viewer thought, Oh, shit.

Someday I’d like to gather a group of women together and ask if they can see the appeal. I couldn’t begin to, and that was before a stunning scene in which some friends of Anthony’s come to dinner and, when he’s out of the room, allude to his being a heroin addict. Well, that would explain his lazy intonations and habit of borrowing large sums of money from Julie — which she in turn had borrowed from her parents, running up quite a debt. Only at this point can you discern a dramatic arc, insofar as addiction (and, for that matter, recovery) circumscribe even the most free-spirited existence. You guess either Anthony degenerates and Julie leaves him or he recovers and she doesn’t. But Julie proves to be not very decisive. She’s as emotionally incoherent as the movie. (I don’t know what to make of Burke’s rendering of Anthony’s upper-crust affectations, but the performance gets points for weirdness.)

The meta comes in fragments. While Anthony is denying and denying and playing head games (“I know you have a received version of what I’m supposed to be”), Julie is struggling in film school to learn to frame her experience. There’s some loose talk of the mechanics of Psycho and some stabs — so to speak — at directing scenes, but no artistic breakthroughs. (Not in this installment, anyway: The Souvenir: Part II is in preproduction.) Even if you don’t know that Hogg was 58 when she made The Souvenir, you can sense that her 24-year-old alter ego isn’t remotely ready to tell her story — that she’ll have to go on and invent her own cinematic language, as well as find the distance to speak for someone who couldn’t speak for himself.

The question is whether Hogg now, a third of a century later, has a bit too much distance. A clue came in January when she told a Sundance audience that she worked to avoid “nostalgia,” after which Film Comment’s Nicolas Rapold asked her what was so bad about nostalgia. “I suppose it can be sentimental,” she said, “and sentimental to me is not very interesting, but I do feel very nostalgic about that time. When I am looking back and reading my diaries … and thinking about my ideas then and how I felt, I do feel a little pang of wishing to reexperience that in a way. I’m not saying I want to be 20 again, but maybe there are some parts of that which would be nice … But I don’t want that to seep into the film. Somehow it’s like putting a veil on it. It’s not because I don’t want the emotion — I don’t connect to it with emotion now anyway — it’s just more a certain sentimentality.”

I cheer Hogg’s aversion to sentimentality, but that answer needs unpacking. If she didn’t want to connect with the emotions she felt at the time, it’s a big problem. She seemed to have plenty of distance on the events in her stunning first feature, Unrelated (2007), released when she was 47. Its story of a 40-ish woman who joins a friend’s family in Italy while trying to come to terms with not having children is steeped in honest sentiment, not sentimentality. It feels detached, but when you get it, you’re overwhelmed by it.

Byrne isn’t a fount of emotion either, but she’s likable, and she projects intelligence even when Julie isn’t thinking clearly. She matches up well — no surprise — with her mother, Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s crisp, aristocratic mum, Rosalind. Swinton is less recognizable here than she was under pounds of makeup as an old man in Suspiria, and her rhythms are stately without being cold. She’s amazing. There’s a hint in this portrait of why Hogg draws such a hard distinction between emotion and sentimentality; it’s in the moment when Rosalind receives news over the phone of the missing Anthony’s whereabouts and has to tell her daughter. She says, simply, “The worst,” the shorthand of someone thunderstruck but determined not to say the obvious, the banal. There is nothing in The Souvenir that’s obvious or banal or that represents anything other than a struggle to get something inchoate onscreen in a way no one else has. That by itself is unspeakably moving.

*This article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Souvenir Is Sometimes Formless, But Always Fascinating