Friday, May 24, 2019


The Souvenir

The Souvenir official site Since its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival and winning the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic World Cinema category, writer-director Joanna Hogg's auto-biographical fourth feature "The Souvenir" (UK/USA 2019 | 119 min.) has received rave reviews. The film tells a love story between a naive young film-school student and her repugnant lover in the '80s. But whether you can be captivated by the story and join the chorus of praise for this arthouse darling might depend on if you find the filmmaker's intensely personal memory interesting and if you can get used to her unconventional storytelling style.

The aspiring film-school student is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) who enjoys hanging out with her classmates and talking about filmmaking and music in her apartment. Then the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke) appears in the film for the first time in a fancy hotel lobby next to a chilled bottle of champagne. With his back facing us for quite a while and a cigarette between his fingers all the time, he offers advice and makes commentaries about art while Julie listens with rapt attention and admiration. From that moment on, Anthony becomes an influential figure in Julie's life.

Anthony claims that he works for a Foreign Office, whatever that is. But strangely, he asks to stay at Julie's place for a few days not long after they met. Of course, Julie agrees and their relationship deepens into a love affair. Despite having become lovers, Anthony remains enigmatic about who he is and what he does. He often asks Julie for money on his way out of the apartment, even though Julie has to ask her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, who is actually the mother of Honor Swinton Byrne in real life) for money to get by. As the story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that Anthony is the type of guy any woman should stay away from. Yet, for reasons unexplained, Julie is incomprehensibly and emotionally attached to Anthony and yields to all of his demands.

The Souvenir Official Site
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir / A24

This film is based on Joanna Hogg's memory from her younger years. Using her signature style of long takes and letting her casts improvise the conversations, the director strikingly recreates her intimate experiences in the '80s. Like dreams floating in and out of consciousness, the film's scenes don't have a conventional sequential flow of events, nor do they provide any prior knowledge to explain the happenings. Thus, it's quite challenging to figure out what's going on, if it can be figured out at all.

Before shooting each scene, Honor Swinton Byrne was reportedly to arrive on the set without knowing what's coming, but she is absolutely fantastic playing the vulnerable yet aspiring young woman. Meanwhile, in the film, Tom Burke never stops smoking and irritating us, except Julie, as the arrogant Anthony.

The film's title refers to the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard's oil painting titled "The Souvenir," which played a role in the relationship between Julie and Anthony. But it is also fitting to characterize each scene of the film as a souvenir that the filmmaker acquires when she travels down her memory lane. Every piece of collected souvenirs must be extremely important and personal to her. But instead of holding them dear at a special private place, they are shared with us strangers who have no background knowledge about them or why they changed her life. Perhaps for some of us, the best we can do is to nod at the filmmaker politely—thanks for sharing.

"The Souvenir" opens on Friday, May 24, 2019 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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