The Souvenir: One You Don't Need

The Souvenir (2019)

Directed by Joanna Hogg

A24, 119 minutes, R (nudity, drug use)



When I was on the selection committee for the Northampton Independent Film Festival, I found that autobiographical films were often problematic. about the problems a director had in making a film, and autobiographical stories. There were some very fine efforts, but quite a few faltered because many filmmakers couldn’t get enough distance from things that happened to them. Invariably, they failed to think like a viewer, not the subject. Critics occasionally suffer from a different malady, that of thinking that if a project is artful, it must be good.


The Souvenir has a curious resumé. Both the London Critics Circle and Sight and Sound Magazine chose it as its best film of 2019, director Joanna Hogg won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and critics have raved over it. Audiences haven’t shared their enthusiasm and it earned a paltry $1.7 million at the box office. Seldom have I seen such a gulf between acclaim and acceptance. Ninety-one percent of critics on Metascore liked the film, but audiences gave it a 6.5 rating, which is how IMDB users scored it as well. On Rotten Tomatoes, 89 percent of critics praised the film, but 64 percent of audience disliked it. I see what attracted critics, but I am more inclined to roll with the masses on this one.


The Souvenir involves a young film student, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), who wishes to make a film about her hometown, the played out former shipbuilding center of Sunderland in Northeast England. Few things are grittier than postindustrial English cities, but Julie comes from bourgeois comfort. She wants to make her own way by sharing a flat and not taping into her parents’ money. She is also a lovely person, but is so painfully shy she almost doesn’t make it into the filmmaking program because she couldn’t articulate her project’s vision. She has friends, but there are also people who take advantage of her and she has trouble detecting the obvious.


Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), a cultured, well-dressed, slightly older man who works for the Foreign Office. He is arrogant and self-centered, but like Julie, he’s such an oddball that the two are drawn to each other. Or, at least, Julie is so enamored of him that she is at first unaware that he is a heroin addict. Anthony’s also a sponge with a taste for fine things and guess who foots the bill? Julie is soon lying to her parents, especially her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) for loans–ostensibly for cameras and supplies for school, but mostly to feed Anthony’s appetites. It helps that Julie’s parents like Anthony and fail to see beyond his facade.


Julie’s toxic relationship with Anthony is on and off–even when he steals her stuff–but he has a gift for making Julie feel as though she’s at fault for everything. There’s a cloud of doom hanging over them and one wonders why Julie keeps returning like a moth to the flame. It’s hard to say that it’s an unbelievable love affair given that Hogg claims it’s largely autobiographical. Hogg often films with sometimes grainy, sometimes gauzy stock. It’s an interesting tactic, though it’s too often difficult to know what we are seeing. Is it a film within a film, with Julie’s project interposed with her character’s experience? Or is the haze a retrieved memory of long-ago events? The time period is never specified, but it appears to be the late 1970s or early 1980s, a time in which London suffered IRA bombings, which make loud cameos in the film.


Honor Swinton Bryne and Tilda Swinton are real-life daughter and mother. Each is excellent in The Souvenir. It might take you a few moments to recognize Tilda, who appears rail thin and sporting grayed out Margaret Thatcher-like hair. At times it’s unclear whether her Rosalind is Julie’s supporter, enabler, or provider of stuffed animals, but there’s always a quiet intensity to her performances, which she turns on at exactly the right moment. Honor is much more vulnerable and naïve, as the script commands. I was less enamored of Burke, who plays Anthony as though he wandered into a tryout for an Oscar Wilde biopic. His mannerisms are exceedingly fey and raise questions of why a sheltered waif like Julie would invite him into her bed.


The film is also marred by scenes that need more background to make sense. What’s the deal with the frilly lingerie, something that couldn’t be more unlike Julie? There’s a scraggly guy who Anthony supposedly left into their flat, but we never find out thing one about him. And who is the man who goes Full Monty and has sex with Julie? We never saw him before and never see him again? I suppose one might call these arty memory fragments, but again this is Hogg thinking inside her own head rather than consdering what viewers might wish to know. Nor is it clear what the film’s title has to do with what we see on the screen. It’s the title of a 1788 painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard that Anthony and Julie discuss. I gather, we are supposed to see Julie as the pampered girl in the flowing dress, but why?


My first thought was that The Souvenir was flawed but interesting, but the more I pondered it, the less I liked it. Fragonard is among my least favorite painters of all time. Does this mean anything? Not much, and I fear that’s my verdict on The Souvenir. A sequel is in the works. Again, why?


Rob Weir






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