The Souvenir (2019)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 48min

Any clear-minded person can see that Julie and Anthony don’t make sense as a couple. One is an insecure though ambitious film student, trying to figure out what she can contribute to society beyond her own privileged background. The other is a haughty intellectual, slightly more experienced, but thinly concealing an innate brokenness. Through the casual conversations, dinner parties, student film shoots, and interviews of The Souvenir, Hogg studies both characters with a keen eye. It is a testament to her thoughtful screenplay and Tom Burke’s restrained performance that we are still holding onto a shred of pity for Anthony by the end, but given the autobiographical angle from which she is approaching this story, it is also clear that Julie is the one whom she looks upon with the greatest empathy and affection. Though Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.

Wide shots are Hogg’s go-to, setting us back from the drama at right angles.

Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, slips into the role of Julie with a modest grace, and much like her mother she carries a cool composure about her, without being so refined as to be inaccessible. Quite fittingly, Tilda plays the mother of Julie as well, Rosalind, and in her few scenes we see a woman with years of wisdom behind her painfully recognising her child’s mistakes, though unable to fully protect her from the consequences. When Julie stays up late for Anthony to arrive one night, Rosalind is there to take over and let her daughter sleep peacefully. The gentle sorrow she projects when Julie wakes is heartbreaking. Bad news has arrived, and she wilfully takes on the responsibility of being the one to ease her child into it.

For Julie, her relationship with Anthony is a process of discovering unsavoury behaviours hidden beneath a veneer of ostentatious respectability. At a dinner featuring a cameo from a gleefully alternative Richard Ayoade, the secret of Anthony’s heroin addiction comes to light. After he stages a break-in at their hotel room in Venice and is caught out, he refuses to admit he did anything wrong, even going so far as to gaslight her into believing she is overreacting.

“You’re inviting me to torture you.”

Thoughtful use of interiors to split Julie and Anthony across either side of the frame.

The fact that he is so much more articulate than Julie is frustrating, and yet it is also one of his most attractive qualities. Where she anxiously stumbles trying to justify why she wants to make a film about downtrodden lives so distant from her own experiences, he confidently asserts the value of cinema that separates itself from reality. Where she gets flustered on film shoots and awkwardly bumps into equipment, he carries an air of self-assured stability.

The frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, particularly as she shoots her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Traces of Yasujiro Ozu are evident in her decision to set her camera back in static wide shots and perpendicular to the actors, as if presenting them like creatures in their natural habitats, but at times it also powerfully diminishes her characters within their surroundings. In a cavernous Venetian room painted with elaborate murals from floor to ceiling, Julie’s breakdown plays out in a mirror on its far side, barely making a mark on the entire image. This fracturing effect is even more potent in the recurring use of a wall-length mirror back at Julie’s apartment, bringing visual layers to compositions that face her away from her guests, or alternatively split the frame down the middle with symmetrical reflections.

Julie’s breakdown in Venice relegated to a small portion of the composition – subtle visual work from Hogg in crafting a story around these characters.
The huge mirror in Julie’s apartment used over and over to form magnificently meaningful compositions, isolating her and fracturing her relationships.

It is a compellingly character-centric aesthetic which Hogg crafts here, so it is somewhat ironic that one of the most affecting shots of The Souvenir is a landscape notable for its lack of any human figures. It returns three times over throughout the film, each time paired with voiceovers of Anthony’s poetic letters, though perhaps most curious aspect is Hogg’s framing of the horizon so far down in the shot that all we can glimpse is the canopy of trees reaching up towards a cloudy sky nearing sunset.

A formal use of this unusual landscape, returning to it over voiceovers of Anthony’s letters.

It is a romanticised vision of a relationship that can only exist when Anthony is absent, though perhaps this is the way he prefers it as well. With one of his letters, he also sends a postcard depicting Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir, from which the film gets its namesake. Within it, a young woman in a pink dress is carving initials into a tree, and we can presume from the letter at her feet that they belong to her lover. Julie thinks she looks sad. Anthony is sure she looks determined. The parallels to their relationship are evident either way, as he continues to live on in those spaces even where he is not physically present. When Hogg finally opens one giant door to the outside world in the magnificent closing shot of the film though, there is a sense of Julie decisively moving on with her life, embracing a world beyond her first love – even if the scars and lessons he left behind never quite fade.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, The Souvenir, used as an effective running motif.
A stunner of a final shot, packed with layers of meaning as Julie enters a new world without Anthony.

The Souvenir is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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