Thursday, 20 June 2019

Movie Review: The Souvenir

The Souvenir **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joanna Hogg.
Written by: Joanna Hogg.
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne (Julie), Tom Burke (Anthony), Tilda Swinton (Rosalind), Richard Ayoade (Patrick), Jaygann Ayeh (Marland), Jack McMullen (Jack), Hannah Ashby Ward (Tracy), Frankie Wilson (Frankie), Barbara Peirson (Barbara), James Dodds (James), Ariane Labed (Garance).
 
I had somehow missed Joanna Hogg’s three previous films – Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – over the past decade since she made her debut – a mistake I rectified in the weeks leading up to the release of her most acclaimed film to date – The Souvenir. The Souvenir is the best film Hogg has made yet – and yet watching those other films certainly informed and prepared me for this film, which has many similarities to her other work – and when she departs for them, its noticeable and effective. This is a film about a toxic relationship – one that threatens to destroy the main character, who is based on Hogg herself – looking back at herself for the distance of 30 or more years to see the person she was, and what she went through to become the person she has. And how, even all these years later, this relationship has never left her. She still loves her version of Anthony in a way – despite the damage done.
 
The film stars Honor Swinton Byrne is a remarkable performance as Julie – a young film student, who dreams of making movies “outside her own privileged experience”, which in itself may explain why Hogg didn’t actually make her debut film until over 20 years later – she perhaps needed that time to become comfortable making the types of films she does, which are in many ways about privilege and class, and nothing at all like the film Julie describes wanting to make. She meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older employee of the Foreign Office, and while “mansplainer” would be a kind word to describe him, she falls for him anyway. He can be charming and funny – and he’s certainly smart. They have fun together. We start noticing warning signs before she does – his constant need to money, his transparent excuses as to why he needs to move in, the secrecy with which he treats his job, the increasing number and duration of his absences, etc. He also very clearly loves her though – and that love is powerful. When a friend of Tom’s explains to her that he cannot see how they fit together – why an intelligent, driven young woman like her is with a habitual heroin user – it clearly comes as a shock to her – but she plays it off.
 
In keeping with Hogg’s preferred style, we never see a lot of major conversations – the blowup, argument, conversation, etc. that must have happened at some point where they discuss his heroin use is never seen – although we get other scenes where it becomes clear that the conversation has happened. We also get some rather cheeky scenes of them arguing in bed about space on the mattress, well before we ever actual see them having sex – there’s basically two sex scenes between them, neither graphic, first where she goes down on him, and later when he reciprocates. Hogg has preferred this approach throughout her career – in both Unrelated and Archipelago, we hear an argument we do not see – staying with the people who can hear it, but are not involved. Hogg plays with this a little this time around – making those familiar with her work think she’s up to the same thing, only then to flash to what we didn’t think we would see. She also makes some interesting choices on what to shoot, and what not to shoot – like a moment late in the film where Julie is with her mother (played by her real life mother and a close friend of Hogg’s – the great Tilda Swinton) – where Julie wants to go leave a note on the door for the absent once again Anthony. Tilda wants to go with her daughter, but she convinces her not to – we hear Julie get in the elevator and go down, but we stay fixated on Tilda as she walks to her bedroom and sits and stares. Like many familial relationships in Hogg’s movies – this mother-daughter one doesn’t talk about the hard stuff – there is no evidence they ever discussed Anthony’s addictions – but she knows them just the same. She wants to protect her daughter – but knows she can no longer do that.
 
Hogg’s films have always been extraordinary in how they look. She prefers long takes – having conversations play out in one take, or looking down hallways, etc. The Souvenir is her best looking film to date – as always, she pays close attention to the architecture. The cinematography has a slight haze to it – the ways memory would. The clothing choices tell you a lot about both Anthony and Julie right away – and aid Swinton Byrne and Burke in giving two of the best performances of the year so far. And at the end, Hogg outdoes herself – with two absolutely remarkable shots, the first on a film set where we see a crew doing the exact same shot of an actress in Julie’s movie that Hogg’s crew is pulling off in that exact moment on Julie – which would have been a perfect way to end the film, only to be followed by an even more perfect final shot – a reverse of the final shot of The Searchers.
 
After watching all of her films over the course of a couple of weeks, I am now certainly a Joanna Hogg fan – and this is the best of the bunch. It’s also a rare indie to already have a sequel in the works – and what’s even more rare is that it deserves one. I wish I could watch Part II of this right now.

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