The Souvenir June 6, 2019
Honor Swinton Byrne
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
n 1980, shortly after she turned 20, the future filmmaker Joanna Hogg was taken to The Wallace Collection of Central London by her older lover. Hogg, then a photographer’s assistant who dreamed of becoming a film director, was led to pay special attention to one of the paintings there. It was Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Souvenir, which was completed between 1775 and 1778. The painting, done in the rococo style, puts a spotlight on a young
woman. Her acorn-brown hair is tied up in millennial pink ribbons and her body is swathed in a billowing, matching gown. She's inscribing something on a tree. Her dog, seated next to her, watches her work. It's unclear what the woman, who has only drawn an “S,” intends to write. A word, a sentence? What has brought her to mark the trunk?
For years, Hogg wondered why her lover brought her to the museum that day, and why the painting had been marked so important by him. “There was something about seeing myself in the painting and wondering whether there was some message to me in showing me this painting,” she told The New Yorker recently. “What did he mean?”
Hogg ruminates on his forethought in this year’s lush, poignant The Souvenir, which dramatizes — without ever being overtly autobiographical — that period in her life, particularly the romance with the older lover. With certitude, Hogg develops how this relationship enabled her to eventually come into her own as an artist — something that seemed at one point far away. A child of wealth, she begins the film a fledgling filmmaker who cannot explain why she wants to go into her field with much conviction; she wants to experience the world through the eyes of others, but much else is indistinct.
Hogg’s equal is played by a tremendous, debuting Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda, who herself has a touching, understated turn in the film as the character’s mother), and is called Julie. The boyfriend, who works, allegedly, for the Foreign Office, is played by the pugilistic, arrogant Tom Burke, and is named Anthony. The film is as personal as it is ambitious. How do you make a feature about yourself without crossing into vanity? How do you write a coming-of-age story so undergirded by the development of one’s artistic sensibility, and the romantic connection that so much played a part in it, without being ham-fisted?
The Souvenir chronicles Julie’s enrollment and subsequent gains in film school. But it more closely details the ways in which the relationship between her and her lover, who is much more often cruel than kind to her, became especially co-dependent, and life-altering, after his recreational heroin use turned excessive, then tragic. Pointedly, and brilliantly, the movie avoids coming across like a collection of explicit memories. So frequently do scenes end without feeling complete; intermittently, the visuals become garbled, almost — as if Hogg could remember the feeling of a certain moment more than she could its trivia.
Hogg tried making The Souvenir earlier in her career. Around 1988, though, she decided to do away with the concept for now, focusing on projects that weren’t so imbued by personal matters. Initially, it was going to be more about Anthony. But later in life, Hogg realized that the movie could be more unequivocally about her experience and how he impacted her. What we get is not just an excellent memory movie — an ill-defined subgenre most directors struggle to coherently work under — but also an emotionally engaging story of a naïve, privileged young woman’s first profoundly transformative adult experience. Never is it plainly stated why Julie is drawn to Anthony, why she stays with him for so many years, and why, down the line, he ends up having such a deep-seated influence on her artistic identity.
Part of what makes The Souvenir work is its strange dichotomy between overwhelming intimacy and multilayered enigma. We can identify with Julie in certain respects: the emotional and psychological tornado in which she’s swirled; the life she comes from, which is decorated and moneyed; and the ways she tries to push herself away from it. But motivations and attractions are left indistinct — as if there are some things Hogg sought to make clear for her viewers and others better understood by her exclusively. This doesn’t detract from the film. It instead underlines the idea that there are perhaps things that Hogg cannot, and genuinely doesn’t need to, dwell on or precisely reveal.
Our memories function like the ones dramatized in The Souvenir. We can remember the particulars of short sequences of time but cannot easily illuminate what might draw us to a person or a situation in our lives in comprehensive, lyrical ways, for instance. The Souvenir embeds itself as if it was, like I think Hogg intended, a memory — often vague but magnificently, emotionally evocative. A