7:00 pm EST, May 20, 2019

‘The Souvenir’ movie review: A haunting trip down memory lane

In Joanna Hogg’s new film The Souvenir, a trip down memory lane reveals profound truths about love, art, and personal identity.

In 1950, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film Rashomon changed the way memory is portrayed and understood on film. The film details the events surrounding the rape of a bride at the hands of a bandit and the murder of the bride’s samurai husband. Through separate testimonies delivered by the bandit, the bride, her husband’s ghost, and a woodcutter, Rashomon reveals four equally contradictory and confounding recollections.

These testimonials underscore not just the fickle beast of memory, but also how self-serving memory can be and the manner in which the truth (if there even is such a thing) is obscured by our own unique perspectives. These thematic elements as well as the skill and command Kurosawa demonstrated in making Rashomon are quite similar to those found in Joanna Hogg’s Sundance favorite The Souvenir.

Set in London in the 1980s, The Souvenir centers on a timid albeit determined film student named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). The film follows Julie’s relationship with a charming yet suspect older man named Anthony (Tom Burke) as she works on her first feature film, teasing out the subtle and intricate connections between Julie’s relationship with Anthony and the maturation of her own artistic voice and vision.

From this description, it’s easy to pick up on the familiarity found in The Souvenir. After all, coming-of-age stories are perennial favorites for filmmakers. Moreover, the broad strokes of Hogg’s tale are hardly original; a young ingenue in the midst of a period of personal growth, an alluring and potentially dangerous love affair, and an artist struggling to find and refine her voice. These may sound like familiar narrative strands, but like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the genius of The Souvenir lies in how carefully Hogg shapes this story using the inherent subjectivity of memories.

While Joanna Hogg readily admits that The Souvenir is based on her own experiences while living in London in the 1980s while enrolled in film school, she remains hesitant to label the film autobiographical. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hogg said:

I was only able to tell this story when I realized my memory is not perfect — and that I was going to create an impression of that time rather than a recreation. I was going to allow for possible inaccuracies.

By relinquishing herself from the need to make something factually accurate, Hogg freed herself to make something far more honest and authentic. Instead of focusing on narrative details as a way of telling her story to the audience, Hogg uses a masterful amalgamation of stylistic choices that allow the audience to experience this memory as if it were their own.

These stylistic choices run a wide gamut from the film’s gorgeously textured set and costume designs that bring Julie’s world to life to the hazy cinematography that casts a thin sheen over the impeccably composed shots. Meanwhile, the script expertly balances precise and emotionally evocative dialogue while entirely eschewing exposition thereby withholding answers to questions that a far more traditional film would answer. This is to say nothing of the editing technique that truncates moments you may expect to be more crucial to the story.

That’s the trick to The Souvenir, though. This is no story, but a memory. Hogg crafts a demanding experience for the viewer, one that requires active engagement on the part of the audience — after all, memories are defined by their inherent fragmentation and subjectivity. The memory component of this film makes it feel, at times, like an exercise in engagement on behalf of the audience. This is a quality I really connected with, but it may not work for some.

Regardless of how one feels about “what the movie is about,” it is (at the very least) an extraordinarily textured visual spectacle that yields as many breathtaking moments as it does mysterious ones. Hogg shrouds the film in the shadow of its protagonists memory, although it rarely feels suspenseful. The puzzles in The Souvenir are made up of those lost memories, the missing pieces that connect to the remembered ones. This technique is at times deeply affecting, at others perplexing — but most of the time it’s both and that is the rewarding singularity of The Souvenir.

Committing this story to film with such a commanding combination of emotional acuity and technical precision would be impressive enough on its own, but Hogg takes it a step further. Through specific editing choices, thoughtful camera placement, and non-diegetic voiceover, The Souvenir finds a way to be both self-reflexive and meta-textual without impinging on the emotional threads of the story.

What is, on the surface, a story of a woman dealing with a terrible boyfriend develops into complex study of artistic voice and personal identity. The movie is less concerned with the particulars of Julie and Anthony’s relationship (again, something that will frustrate those looking for a more traditional story) and far more concerned with how that relationship compliments Julie’s growth as an individual and an artist.

The success of Hogg’s vision is shared, at least in part, with her cast of skilled performers. In her first starring role, Honor Swinton Byrne delivers a sublime performance full of studied nuance and naturalistic energy that anchors the story without weighing down the dreamy atmosphere. In a fun bit of meta-casting, Honor’s mother Tilda Swinton plays her own mother in the film, bringing a steady grace to the role.

Meanwhile, Anthony is brought to life by a particularly impressive performance from Tom Burke; the difficult role demands that he play both charismatic and repulsive, powerful and pathetic. Burke seems to understand that he is the antagonist of the story without playing himself as a villain. It’s an accomplished performance that makes Anthony into a fully formed character without breaking from Julie’s point of view.

That point of view, so integral to the story yet puzzlingly incomplete, allows the audience to step into the memory of another without a promise of where that memory will lead or what significance it will have. So many of the details within this story, one that sounds so familiar at first, go untouched and unexplained. It’s not that they feel shied away from, it’s simply that they’ve been lost in time to memory.

I expect The Souvenir is the kind of film that would benefit from a rewatch so that some of its fuzzier details may fall into place. However, I would argue that the beauty of Hogg’s vision lies in how it obscures factual truth in favor of crafting an authentically-driven experience for the audience. To truly understand The Souvenir, one must allow its grainy-haze to envelop that feeling of incompleteness and replace it with an acceptance of those things we cannot recall. In The Souvenir, the past may remain out of focus, but that needn’t stop us from revisiting it.

‘The Souvenir’ is now playing in theaters

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