The Souvenir


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Souvenir
"The costumes in The Souvenir speak volumes about female and male desire and the search for identity that garments can encompass." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir is a marvel of complexity. Admittedly autobiographical, it tells the story of Julie, a film student in London in the 1980s, who lives a love story that will mark her life forever. Julie is played by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie's mother Rosalind in the film and is Hogg's "oldest friend". Which means that she lived with her through the events we see on the screen. The footage we see of Julie's student work, black and white images of the run-down shipyards at Sunderland and colour ones from the streets of London, are the filmmaker's own from the Eighties.

When great storytellers take on the challenge of reconstructing a very personal past, it can be immensely rewarding for audiences - I am thinking of Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius or Alfonso Cuarón's ROMA. The deeper we enter into the private memories, it seems, the more universal the hurts and pains and joys and confusions become.

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Reconstructed moments conjure up shared movie memories. There is a bleached blonde girl in red mohair at a party in The Souvenir, who is a dead ringer for Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Mother and daughter Swinton slicing vegetables in aprons, with Benny Goodman playing for their pleasure conjure up thoughts of Chantal Akerman and her Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. If only Delphine Seyrig had company and swing music and more sunshine in her kitchen.

Anthony (Tom Burke in a great seesaw performance) who has a somewhat mysterious job in the government's foreign office, changes everything for Julie and gets away with almost everything. He is a troubled Pygmalion whom we see through her eyes, which makes all the difference. When Anthony taunts Julie and hurts her, and hides his own despair, he says things like, "You're inviting me to do that to you."

Julie's stuffed animal toys (her mother knows them by name, what a sensational and unheard of aside in a film to show closeness!) still sleep in her bed in her twenties. Anthony uses them playfully to separate his side of the bed from hers and references Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable as if they were re-enacting a scene from Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. Sores, lies, betrayal and cruelties - we oscillate with the protagonist between being in the moment and the wisdom of hindsight.

Among many other things, he inserts some Powell/Pressburger ideas into the head of the fledgling filmmaker who tries to escape the "bubble" of her class and family wealth by throwing herself at first into social realism as a role model for her projects. Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene is not only discussed with her fellow students, it seems to have had a lasting impact on Hogg herself, as far as the mastery of what not to show is concerned.

The dialogue is so emotionally exact and alive precisely because of the fact that most of the words were not memorised by the actors. They know what to say but have to figure out how to say it that very moment, just as we all do in real life. Camera angles hide as much as they reveal and music is able to contaminate scenes in the most impressive way. We hear of pipe bombs and Northern Ireland is mentioned often on the radio. Meanwhile the family goes for a stroll in the country with their two most adorable dogs who love it so much that their joy leaps from the screen.

The costumes in The Souvenir speak volumes about female and male desire and the search for identity that garments can encompass. Julie dresses for her surroundings to the extreme. Her fashion sense is remarkably disconnected, as if she were performing roles in different plays. There is student Julie, in jeans and plaid shirts, with Vivienne Westwood's pirate collection for special occasions.

And there is daughter Julie, in jewel-coloured cardigans, heirloom brooches, and silk foulards with hunting motives - an only slightly less tweedy and woolly copy of her mother's style. Never do the two modes meet in, say, the Nile-green sweater worn with the denim to make both her own.

When Anthony suggests a grey suit be made for her for a trip to Venice, he and she and movie lovers in the audience are all aware of the Vertigo reference and all that comes with it - control and fantasy, magic and constraint, a past that never was and its resurrection.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, from different angles, speaks of the battle of transforming of the self and the other through clothing and love, not too many films do. A corset restricts you and makes you stand up straighter. Memories can do the same. Rosalind is a mother whose silence is steeped in history. Her comforting and healing abilities ("Well done for today," she says and it breaks your heart) make you almost forget what she doesn't do and what she doesn't say to help her daughter.

Objects link The Souvenir together - one is a piece of fabric, a scarf with tassels worn by several people in different ways. And there is the little 18th century Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting that gives the film its title. There is no mad Carlotta, but a lovely image of another thoughtful girl that had to figure out her past and her future, her being of fact and of fiction.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2019
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A quiet film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man.
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Director: Joanna Hogg

Writer: Joanna Hogg

Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed, Jack McMullen

Year: 2019

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: UK

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