Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival awarded its Grand Jury Prize to The Souvenir, written and directed by British Indie director, Joanna Hogg. Largely autobiographical, The Souvenir is pieced together from Hogg’s decades-old diaries, love letters and audio recordings, and it tells the story of her tragic May-December romance during the early ‘80s as she struggled to find her artistic voice.
Honor Swinton Byrne, the real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton, gives a captivating and understated performance as Hogg’s surrogate in her first starring role. Her character, Julie, a reserved 24 year-old woman of privilege living in an apartment in London, is a film school student studying to become a director. When a man who rents one of her rooms throws a party, a guest catches Julie’s eye even though his back is turned towards her, not unlike Cary Grant’s introduction in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Notorious. In a later scene, Hogg explicitly references Hitchcock as if to suggest a way to approach her film.
But back to the man at the party: Julie must have caught his eye as well, because a few days later he sends her a lunch invitation. His name is Anthony, played by the charismatic Tom Burke. Well dressed and worldly-wise, Anthony is possessed with soft-spoken intelligence and seductive charm. After they dine, he shows her a French 18th century painting entitled “The Souvenir” which depicts a woman carving the initials of the man she loves on a tree. Julie and Anthony eventually become involved, and it will take the audience considerably less time than it does Julie to realize that Anthony is a Lothario who harbors a dark secret.
At film school, Julie and her classmates deconstruct Hitchcock’s filmmaking style. They discuss how his films often provide information that makes sense only in hindsight. And Julie points out how he juxtaposes two images to create a third unseen image within our minds. Therein lies the key to fully understanding and appreciating The Souvenir. Hogg may not be Hitchcock, but her quotidian dialog and visuals add up to something greater than the sum of their parts; as Anthony and schoolwork compete for Julie’s attention, close-ups of her typewriter provide subtle clues regarding her shifting priorities; a recurring motif of a pastoral scene filled with blue sky and repeated images of elevator doors closing on Anthony imbue depth and meaning to the film’s final image; and when Julie starts hogging their bed, the banality of a quibble over mattress real estate disguises a cry for help as Anthony complains that he’s on the edge with no place to go.
It’s almost meta in the way Hogg constructs The Souvenir – it’s how we might imagine Julie’s first film turning out, packed with metaphors and subtext designed to impress her instructors. Hogg’s command of the cinematic language might not satisfy those craving straight-up entertainment, but film buffs looking for an anti-blockbuster will find much to enjoy in The Souvenir.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski