Film Review | The Souvenir: The art of instructive mistakes

Executively produced by Martin Scorsese, British director Joanna Hogg’s raw but expertly stage-managed mining of her own past makes for sumptuous and deliciously discomfiting viewing

Between Almodovar’s Pain and Glory (reviewed in these pages just last week) and now Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, it appears as though September 2019 is keen to etch itself as the month for autobiographical explorations of film-makers’ lives, albeit ones at the opposite poles of the age spectrum. Though indulgent in some ways, the sub-genre of the filmmaker’s introspective look at what makes their own practice tick (it would be styled kunstlerroman for novels) is also potentially a decent-enough groundwork to explore universal themes.

And the very disparity of age in the protagonists/film-makers’ stand-ins in the examples above hint at what it can all be about. While Almodovar tackles present-day concerns of old resentments coming to the fore and physical health waning in latter-day years, Hogg takes a pained and cringing journey back to her film-school years, during which time she also found herself entangled in a truly yikes-inducing, red-flag-prompting relationship with a charismatic but deeply suspicious older man who claimed to have worked for the Foreign Office.

Her own avatar is Julie, played with disarming vulnerability by Honor Swinton-Byrne, the daughter to British thespian luminary Tilda Swinton, who also shows up here to play mother to her daughter’s fictional iteration. Ensconced in the privileged trappings of a plush property in Knightsbridge, London during the 1980s – with the looming threat of IRA car bombs apt to go off at any moment – Julie sub-lets the apartment bequeathed to her while trying to put together a film on the poverty-stricken port city of Sunderland as part of her course work.

At a party, she meets the quietly charming Anthony (Tom Burke), whose patrician air and bluntly honest, though oddly sensitive and perceptive, observations of her and her own work gradually lead to a more sustained relationship. Noting an opportunity to insert himself further into Julie’s life when he overhears that her tenant will be going away for a few days, Anthony effectively moves in for good. But all is not as it seems, even if Julie appears too blind to read the signs at first.

Anybody even vaguely familiar with Hogg’s oeuvre will know that she’s not one for rapid-fire, rat-a-tat storytelling. But her incisive character studies are always quietly compelling experiences, particularly in their ability to eviscerate the pretensions and neuroses of her own social class of origin. Here, however, the work is shaded with additional depth and a rich canvas of pain, as Hogg turns the scalpel on herself. That’s not to say that this is some morbid, sadomasochistic exercise, either.

We follow Julie’s fatal mistakes across terrain that is new to her in every respect. She is feeling her way through dangerous and – for her – unprecedented territory in a relationship she does not yet realise is a minefield, while also latching on to an artistic subject that may be motivated by outwardly good intentions but is clearly not the most honest pathway for her as an artist.

Whereas Hogg’s previous output may have intrigued us by giving us a fly-on-the-wall view of the lives of people we may not usually be able to frequent or familiarise ourselves with, lacing the pill with satirically mordant humour, The Souvenir offers an olive branch of universality to audiences thanks to what could broadly be defined as the coming-of-age trappings of its story.

They are not narrative trappings, however, as the movements of the plot itself are, as its typical of its writer-director, minimal nudges at best. Its elliptical, half-repressed, queasy conversations (but ones which nonetheless offer up glittering gems of wit every now and then) tempt one to describe it all as ‘so British’, but it’s nonetheless a startling quality in a film so full of delights.

Oh and it looks great too, with David Raedeker’s cinematography evoking the ‘80s milieu with sensitivity and candour, making the spaces feel lived-in but subtly upping the ante on the glamour when the occasion calls for it (such as the couples’ lightning visit to Venice, presaged by a canny, repeated image of an arch reflected in the waters).

We often use the term ‘cinematic’ to signify grandiose filmic canvases and big budget extravaganzas that emphasise an obvious ‘wow’ factor… an idea that is superficial and increasingly stale in a time when the cinema’s biggest competitor – streaming ‘television’ – is catching up both in terms of budgets and audience attention. But Hogg’s film makes the most of formats ability to immerse, evoke and move through its interplay of light and shadow, redolent of the very same tension between fear and ecstasy, hope and oblivion which marks this, and all other, coming-of-age experiences.

A sequel is in the offing, and it can’t come soon enough. Not because this first instalment leaves us dangling on some cheap cliffhanger, but simply because a morsel this delicious naturally calls for more.

The verdict

A treat for long-time Hogg fans but also an apt introduction to her oeuvre for patient newcomers, The Souvenir is a tender and deeply beguiling autobiographical journey that both indulges in and examines the trappings of privilege it can’t help but be draped in, while offering an honest and concise coming-of-age story whose universality is never telegraphed, but deeply felt.

The Souvenir will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema at St James Cavalier, Valletta on October 8 at 7.30pm, October 15 at 7.30pm, October 19 at 8.30pm and October 23 at 7.30pm.