A review of the art house film “The Souvenir”

Art house films always have limited appeal and, even though this one had rave reviews from critics, some people walked out of the screening that I attended of this British work written and directed by Joanna Hogg. It is terribly slow and exceedingly opaque, yet oddly compelling, and it certainly provokes thought and discussion. It tells the story of early 1980s film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), aged 25 and posh but unbelievably na├»ve, and her toxic relationship with the older and enigmatic Anthony (Tom Burke) who apparently works at the Foreign Office. 

The acting is superb, so it is astonishing that it is Byrne’s first role, and much of this acting is very naturalistic with Byrne as the central character being told to improvise everything. Also the composition and cinematography are frequently very striking and the use of music sometimes haunting. The main problem is the narrative. The relationship seems utterly unlikely and yet this is clearly an autobiographically-inspired drama and Hogg gave the leads her diaries and letters from this period of her life. 

For Hogg, this is an intensely personal film. Julie’s mother is played by Tilda Swinton who has been a friend of Hogg since they were both 10 and Byrne is both Swinton’s daughter and Hogg’s goddaughter. 

The title of the film is a reference to a painting of that name by Fragonard which hangs in London”s Wallace Collection, but there is only one scene featuring the painting and later a verbal reference to the gallery. At the very end of the credits, it is revealed that there will be a Part II and I understand that this has already been shot. At one point, Anthony tells Julie: “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost”. I think that this was the reaction of some viewers to the film itself, but I’ll be back for Part II and hoping that Julie finds herself.


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