Friday, August 30, 2019

The Souvenir – a naive dreamer meets a manipulative bully in director Joanna Hogg’s self-portrait (QFT from Friday 30 August)

The Souvenir is a portrait of an aspiring young filmmaker, Julie, who lives in a duplex apartment in Knightsbridge. It’s the early 1980s and she’s a dreamer, who listens to opera, and has lofty notions of making a film about a boy in Sunderland who fears being separated from his mother. Her own parents are remote: living in the country and, beyond funding her bills, relatively disinterested in her life.

Into her orbit comes a somewhat shadowy man, Anthony, who wears a wide pin stripe suit (in itself a huge giveaway that he’s a baddie) and claims to work at the Foreign Office. His secrecy turns to deception and manipulation, while her naivety and generosity morphs into compassion and dependence even when she finally figures out his game. Will her time at film school grant her liberation from this controlling bully, or will be rein in his talented muse?

Newcomer, Honor Swinton Byrne is terrific throughout, balancing Julie’s calm and reserved nature (her character prefers to stand at the back of a room observing what’s going on) with a quiet determination once she has grasped the facts of her situation (though she then intentionally ignores most of the healthy options she could choose). Amazingly for a film studies student, Julie can deconstruct a Hitchcock movie, but struggles to piece together the obvious clues until they are delivered on a plate in a beautifully blunt cameo performance by Richard Ayoade.

Opposite Julie stands Anthony, played by Tom Burke, a master of never giving proper eye contact and communicating shiftiness without having to scream “I’m a bastard” in every shot. Any criticism directed towards Anthony is pivoted right back at Julie with the skill of a seasoned liar. Every supposed compliment is a barbed insult – “you’re lost … you’ll always be lost” – yet Burke steers clear of becoming an out-and-out pantomime villain and some of the romance is believable.

Julie’s mum (played by Byrne’s actual mother, Tilda Swinton) portrays the standoffish parent who just perhaps has more insight into her daughter’s position that she lets on. That she is only present in a small number of scenes amplifies her early diffidence and shift to ultimate wholehearted involvement.

For screenwriter/director Joanna Hogg, the story of The Souvenir is deliberately autobiographical, with her goddaughter Byrne playing a version of her young self that fell in love with a man supposedly working at the Foreign Office who took her on a date to see ‘The Souvenir’ painting at the Wallace Collection in London.

Hogg’s love of improvisation contributes to the brooding hesitancy of scenes and turns The Souvenir into a study of awkwardness, with anxiety-inducing conversations around dinner tables and huge clouds of sadness that sit above the entire story (assisted by the primary set’s décor that drains the colour out of the location). The drug misuse is much more believable than another recent release, Pain and Glory.

Stylistically, Hogg creates a film that doesn’t provide all the answers. In fact, it regularly cuts away mid-scene and jumps to another incident or encounter without feeling the need to join the dots. Like its central character – who is rarely not on screen – the plot staggers around in a sometimes romantic (but often depressed) daze, coping with each day rather than planning too far in advance.

The Souvenir is sinister and at times distressing watch. Its two-hour run time emphasises the deep hole into which a young woman is being coerced into digging. The unusual style and the compelling non-carbon copy characters make it very watchable. The news that The Souvenir: Part II has completed filming over the summer fills me with joy as it promises to pick up the story a few days after the end of Julie’s harrowing experience and follows the artist for the next decade or so. It could hardly be any more harrowing that this first episode, but Joanna Hogg may yet have other disturbing tales up her sleeve.

The Souvenir opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 30 August.

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