'The Souvenir' ★★★1/2
It's hard to shake “The Souvenir.”
I suppose that's understandable for a movie whose very title refers to the persistence of memory. The French verb “souvenir” means “to remember,” and, in the context of the film, alludes to a painting of the same name by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of a woman carving her lover's initials on a tree. It's an artwork that the film's protagonist, a London film student named Julie, visits with her lover, Anthony, a “charismatic but untrustworthy” man, in the words of the film's distributor, A24.
That euphemistic characterization is quite the understatement.
Yes, the relationship at the center of writer-director Joanna Hogg's semi-autobiographical film is a turbulent one. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is in her early 20s: naive, idealistic, at time slightly bewildered. Her boyfriend (Tom Burke) is pushing 40: a louche government bureaucrat who holds his cigarettes as if they hurt his wrists and who showers Julie with a form of attention that is at once close and more than slightly cruel. His observations about her always sound carefully considered yet vaguely condescending, in the way that an older mentor's advice to a young protege might simultaneously sting and reveal a thrilling scrutiny. It never feels like Julie is into Anthony as much as she likes – perhaps even loves – the feeling of being seen.
Sometimes, Hogg, suggests, we crave attention even when it's undermining.
And yet, as accurate as A24's spoiler-averse description of Anthony is – he's a sponge, a liar and much worse – it doesn't begin to describe the unsettling direction this love affair goes in, nor does it capture the lingering impact of Hogg's eccentric memoir, whose hidden subject seems to be memory itself.
Set in Thatcher-era England in the affluent neighborhood of Knightsbridge, “The Souvenir” is, on a superficial level, a clinical portrait of privilege. Julie, a stand-in for the filmmaker, is comfortably middle class, constantly borrowing money from her mother, played by Tilda Swinton (who is both Swinton Byrne's actual mother and a childhood friend of the director). In the film, Julie wants to make a movie set in a blighted industrial city. Her teacher asks her why, when it's so foreign from what she knows. Hogg, on the other hand, trains her camera on exactly what she knows – the artsy intelligentsia of her youth – with the same kind of mordant perusal that Anthony brings to Julie.
In that sense, “The Souvenir” draws blood at times. Swinton Byrne was reportedly not given a screenplay, so her bewilderment often feels acutely raw and real. In the end, the cumulative effect of the gimmick leaves a tiny credibility gap, with Julie coming across as almost implausibly trusting.
But there are other ways in which Hogg's oblique style of filmmaking works brilliantly. Conversations between Julie and her circle of friends and colleagues – conversations that touch on the mechanics of storytelling, and the way what's left out of a narrative is sometimes as important as what's left in – frame the idea of a straightforward memoir with skepticism. Hogg periodically interrupts the action of the film with shots of an empty sky over a fringe of treetops. In a way, these empty, almost blank screens break “The Souvenir” into chapters, but they also serve as palate-cleansing resets, reminding us that – as much as Hogg has mined her own past for material – the movie is a kind of lie that tells the truth.
In Hogg's view, it seems, all mementos are suspect. Like the scent of an absent lover that still clings to a garment he has left behind, souvenirs don't tell us what is – or even what was – but what we wish to believe.
But make no mistake: Hogg's quirky coming-of-age tale (which teases a forthcoming sequel) is no misty remembrance of bygone days. Rather, it is a clear-eyed reflection on how hindsight – and true art – is always 20/20.