Honor Swinton Byrne is phenomenal in The Souvenir. The film from Joanna Hogg presents a coming of age story for Swinton Byrne’s Julie, who is in the process of making a feature for film school. If you don’t recognize Swinton Byrne’s talent by this late juncture of the film, then you will see it when she looks directly at you, through the camera, following filming a take of her own. It is a shot that really shouldn’t be this powerful. It is too reflexive, too direct. But Swinton Byrne carries the weight of the film that has played out before her, and she puts that weight on you when she goes direct-to-camera.
Julie’s relationship to the audience may be as fraught as her romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke) is. For one, it becomes increasingly hard for one to believe that she would remain with such a conniving, smarmy-charming man—he abuses heroin using her money, he steals from her, he condescends to her, he calls her a “freak.” It is a complex relationship, to be sure, one where the strain put on Julie can easily and intensely be felt by the viewer. But watching it continue to go on, it becomes impossible to ascertain what she continues to see in him.
Her filmmaking, too, poses a potential point of distance between her and the audience. Her film, “Mother: the Story of a Boy,” is about a man’s obsession with his mother, who dies. She wants to film the feature in Sunderland, a town we hear about but rarely see. It is, from what Julie tells us, a decaying town. She sees the place as a metaphor for her character’s decay at the hands of his mother’s death.
Julie claims to be choosing Sunderland because she wants to get out of the bubble of her privilege. But this is a hollow sentiment. She claims to want to document the death of a working class town, but she makes clear to Anthony that she is not making a documentary. She is using the reality of Sunderland for her own gain, to document a fiction of her creation. In glimpses, we see her B-roll of the city and its occupants. The people are at a distance and kept silent. The landscape shots are basic and do not illustrate the setting. Sunderland, for her, is not a place whose story is worth telling; it is merely a nice metaphor for her own story.
It is difficult to appreciate Julie’s artistic voice. For one, it is rarely seen in the film, and the snippets of the script we hear are superficial observations. But we are also distanced from her voice by the aversion created by her faulty perception of her own privilege.
Like with her relationship to Anthony, this is a problem which is complicated to unpack. Julie, in comparison to those in her social circle, does not appear to be the most economically privileged. She most resort to borrowing money from her mother (Tilda Swinton), which in most cases just gets funneled back into Anthony’s addiction.
But her admission of the privilege she does have does not absolve her of her inability to truly do what she claims to be doing, which is understand a world outside of her bubble. Throughout the entirety of the film, she is in her bubble (a large majority of the film, in fact, takes place inside of her apartment). It becomes clear that, at least at this point in her life, she is content with looking out from her increasingly uncomfortable position within the bubble.
There is something compelling in this exploration of hermetic existence. But it takes until the final shot for the film to hint at a life that she will live outside of that existence, and that feels like it is too little and too late. Hogg’s restrained approach to her character study is, at times, a stroke of brilliance. Static shots of Julie’s life indoors, shots of her relationship with Anthony in various states of dissolve, are striking. But the restraint leaves a hole in Julie’s story that can be hard to reconcile.
What Hogg’s film does that is unique and similarly brilliant is in its approach to filming the filmmaker. The Souvenir is a film about the formative power of filmmaking, in a way, but it does not worship at the alter of cinema. In some moments, it appears to look down its nose at the snobbishness of the filmmaker persona. And what Julie learns from film, it seems, is that if confines you even when you want it to broaden your horizons. A less mature film about filmmaking would treat the art form as a sacred cow, a relic that can only provide clarity. Hogg complicates this notion, and the film is better for it.
I guess the easiest place to leave a conversation about The Souvenir is to, in summary, call it complicated. Some already consider it one of the best films of 2019, and I cannot counter this opinion. All I can say is that it takes a lot of thought to sift through this character study of a messy time in a young person’s life. This thinking may not have led me to appreciate the film more, but being challenged to think about a film is never in itself a negative.
The Souvenir: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)