Early in The Souvenir, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is asked why she hopes to make films with subject matter so different from her posh London lifestyle.
“I want to not live my whole life in this very privileged part of the world I come from,” she answers. “I want to be really aware of what’s going on around me.” The young film student’s fervent desire to break out of her “bubble” is ironic — writer-director Joanna Hogg has made a career out of probing the insular British upper class she’s known her entire life.
This film, which recounts a tumultuous romance Hogg had when her career began in the early '80s, is easily her most personal project to date. The auteur succeeds in capturing the blurry memories of her early artistry, but often weakens her story's dramatic potency as a result.
When The Souvenir begins, Julie dreams of surpassing typical short student films and making a full-length feature. Her subject? A troubled working-class boy from northern England’s grimy Sunderland docks. The 24-year-old spends her days poring over grainy photos at her typewriter and hanging with a scruffy group of likeminded creatives, but no breakthroughs come. She's a girl who stutters in class but hardly registers when an IRA bombing shakes her apartment in the midst of a brainstorming session — too enamored with ambition to fully participate in her life, but completely unprepared to put anything into practice.
Soon, Julie meets and strikes up a charged acquaintance with an older man named Anthony (Tom Burke). He’s a former art student who claims to be a government despot, and — as we learn later — is definitely a heroin addict. Before she or the audience have had time to make sense of his sudden appearance in her life, he’s moved into her apartment and is borrowing sums of money that she palms off her mother (Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s real-life mom). Foppishly arrogant, Anthony needles her and her filmmaking at every turn ("You're a freak." "Why are [your characters] any more real than me?" "You're lost and you'll always be lost"). Whether Julie comes to see his troubled refinery as a palatable alternative to her sheltered wealth or this behavior sums up the man who inspired his character, they soon become a couple anyway.
As the cycle of Anthony's addiction begins to take a quiet toll on their relationship, the director's remarkable commitment to recounting these memories shines through. She sticks with her tradition of forgoing a score, but adds recurring musical cues: punk rock for Julie and ominous opera for Anthony. The songs, which are based on the director and her former lover's tastes at the time, give more context to their dynamic than any exchange. In turn, watching The Souvenir flit from scene to scene with little context of much time has passed feels like watching Hogg sift through this period in her life. The film's long, static composition often gives way to more experimental vantage points as Julie learns to frame her story — a grainy cut to tree tops as she reads letters from her lover, or a tender closeup in bed. Hogg's young protagonist is constantly shown alongside mirrors, a refracted stand-in for experiences that — when her incoherent storytelling works — feel intimate to the point of intrusion.
The trouble begins when the familiar, reductive quality of memories starts to interfere with The Souvenir's ability to tell a dramatic story. Until Anthony's addiction is revealed, nothing in the film provides a sense of urgency. And why should it? If the the story is meant to relay a series of events without overwhelming nostalgia, then normal character arcs or plot beats need not apply. Even Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie with an uneasy, naive hunger striking for a first-time actress, wasn't given any backstory that might influence her acting choices. Hogg reportedly worked from a script of less than thirty pages, telling her actors what was next for their characters shortly before a day of shooting. Still, we have no idea exactly why Julie is drawn to this toxic man in the first place, or why her family continue to house him and loan large sums of money with no questions asked. Even bits that should give us some context instead keep audiences just out of reach. Only the back of Anthony's head is shown in the couple's first meeting, and when Julie finally has a moment of catharsis — she breaks down on a trip to Venice after realizing that he has stolen from her — the film quickly cuts to the next scene, as if afraid to give deeper insight.
Julie’s somewhat selfish desire to tell working class people’s own stories slowly dissipates as she finds her footing and begins making student films with her friends. But Hogg, who pitched the exact same projects in her early twenties, turns a blind eye towards her protagonist’s ignorant authorship. As she finally begins coming into her own at The Souvenir's conclusion, Julie makes eye contact with the camera against a stark black background. It's perhaps the first time that we seen herindependent of her real-life counterpart's foggy anecdotes, and the story of a young woman transforming as an artist and a survivor of a toxic relationship carries greater promise than simply recounting the life of awoman privileged enough to get lost in the first place. The Souvenir 2 is currently in pre-production, and one can only hope that Hogg will continue to give viewers intimate peeks into the nature of memory — without isolating them in the meantime.