Remembrance of things past: ‘The Souvenir’

By Isabella Trimboli
Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical coming-of-age tale avoids easy answers

The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg makes quiet, clear-eyed films about rich people caught in various states of ennui. Over 12 years and four films, the British director has dissected the discomforts of the upper-middle classes, capturing their lives when they are at their most idle: a middle-aged woman drawn into the lives of her friend’s children in a villa in Tuscany (Unrelated, 2007); a family vacation in the Isles of Scilly turns awry (Archipelago, 2010); two married artists don’t work and don’t have sex in the sterile modernist house they’re about to sell (Exhibition, 2013). There are cooks and cleaners and dinner parties and discussions about art. Hogg’s films sound nauseating on paper, but her chilly, scrupulous gaze renders this stratum of society in a rarely seen and satisfying realism.

Hogg has carved out a singular cinematic style: there are more shots of darkened corridors than there are close-ups; conflict occurs off camera; and imposing interiors reflect the cloistered, insular lives of her characters. So spare and still are her films that moments of little consequence – a pheasant bone scraping the inside of one’s mouth at dinner, for example – can feel like high drama.

But her latest film, The Souvenir (in limited release from October 3), begins in a world her protagonist does not inhabit. It’s the city of Sunderland, in the 1980s, and the working-class shipbuilding port is in steep decline. Inky photographs of the city appear on the screen: idle cranes, rubbish-strewn streets, a mother folding sheets in her home. Through a crackly voice over, we’re introduced to Julie (played by Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s daughter, in her first film role), a 24-year-old upper-middle class film student who is consumed with the idea of making her first movie – a heavy-handed story about a son’s obsessive love for his mother – in the city. Hogg sets up Julie as an earnest, eager observer, but also as someone naively surveying the wrong scene.

Anyway, it’s not long before Julie’s Sunderland film is eclipsed by a more beguiling project. At a party in the Knightsbridge apartment that her parents pay for, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a pompous 30-something Foreign Office worker with a refined, worldly palate. He studied fine art, holds the films of Powell and Pressburger in high regard, and is forever in a pinstripe suit. He’s also suave, charming and present, willing to engage with Julie and her ideas, even if his opinions are often barbed and border on mockery (Anthony’s monologues will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever been stuck speaking to a man who is too pleased with his own intellect). Soon enough, he wedges his way into her life, staying overnight at her apartment and attempting to shape her tastes, which includes taking her to see the tiny, rococo Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting after which the film is named.

The Souvenir is autobiographical, based on a relationship Hogg had with an older man when she was in her early twenties. She has gone to impressively obsessive lengths to make her film as accurate and detailed as possible. She pored over tapes of therapy they attended as a couple, personal diary entries, photographs and old love letters (which manifest via voiceovers throughout the film). Julie’s Knightsbridge apartment is a near-perfect replica of Hogg’s former home, and she filled the set with real-life remnants of the all-consuming relationship she interprets onscreen.

Avoiding exposition, Hogg tells her story through elliptical fragments, where the passing of time feels foggy and indefinite. And while The Souvenir is a continuation of Hogg’s established style, the glacial takes of her previous films have been tightened to fit the constraints of 16mm film, which is used intermittently. The combined effect gives The Souvenir a textural, collage-like feeling, more fitting to Hogg’s complicated assemblage of her own memory.

Reckoning with her past allows Hogg to interrogate what she missed the first time around. “I want to be really aware of what is going on around me,” says Julie in a roundtable discussion at her film school, unconvincingly pitching her Sunderland film. A few scenes later, it takes a filmmaker friend (played with pitch-perfect arrogance by Richard Ayoade) over dinner to point out what is right in front of her. “You don’t look druggy to me.” Julie is confused. He points to the empty chair where her boyfriend had been sitting moments earlier, then to her, “Habitual heroin user… trainee Rotarian.”

The statement breaks Julie’s obliviousness, and Anthony’s addiction quickly unravels in front of her, as if he’s finally been granted permission to drop his smarmy facade. He lies, manipulates, concocts unbelievable excuses – he ransacks Julie’s apartment, stealing her jewellery and film equipment for money. In his absence, a splintered mirror in Julie’s apartment serves as a reminder of his all-consuming, ruinous presence. Eventually, she’s driving him into the outer boroughs to score. “Is this for work?” she asks softly, with a tone that signals disbelief. It would be so easy for Hogg to package their relationship as a cautionary tale, to render Anthony as simply a predatory villain, but she resists this basic reading. Instead, Hogg focuses uneasily on Julie, who bears the corrosive effects of this problematic attachment.

The Souvenir revels in surfaces: old chandeliers, frescos, a gilded antique bed-frame, boxed lingerie, Anthony’s monogrammed slippers, which Julie lovingly places her bare feet on top of as they dine in their regular, an ornate tearoom where the clientele is significantly their senior. There is something revealing in how Hogg indulges in these images to an uncomfortable effect. Whenever the outside world fleetingly intrudes – discussion about politics at the dinner table, the Harrods bombing of 1983 – Hogg’s characters are always shown encircled and insulated by the physical manifestations of wealth.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this preoccupation with glamour, as if fantasy, expectation and reality have coalesced into one. When the pair go on a trip to Venice, for instance, it’s all champagne, opera at the Teatro la Fenice, Julie’s silver gown gliding up a towering staircase. But there is a moment that slices through the grandeur: Julie quietly crying in the sumptuous hotel room, realising that it was Anthony who robbed her apartment and then pretended it was random act of theft. In a profile for The New Yorker, Hogg expresses how, while herself living through this situation, her imagination clouded her discernment: “I had spent months planning, and didn’t want to give up on the plan… The show had to go on, and there was so much in the show – so much dreaming, all the ideas. It was creating a piece of work.” It’s no wonder then, that Hogg includes more shots of the warped reflection of Venice in the murky canal, as opposed to the real thing.

The Souvenir dwells on projection and performance, the roles we cultivate when our identities are in flux or still forming. There is something slightly sad, slightly embarrassing, about the way Julie shuffles through a first-class train carriage in an ill-fitting, anachronistic dress suit – a rich kid play-acting as a worldly aristocrat.

Hogg has a history of working with non-actors, but Swinton Byrne’s turn as Julie is truly something else. She plays her with such uneasy, nervous energy, swinging between determination and acquiescence. Her speech is sometimes wobbly and muddled, and through her body she makes visible the frustration of not being able to articulate what it is she really wants to say. But expressions that diverge from this – a comedic grimace, a raised, authoritative tone of voice – offer flashes of Julie moving beyond her own self-consciousness.

Tilda Swinton is an expertly calibrated presence onscreen, too, playing Julie’s mother with just the right amount of skittish, coddling energy. She channels this through small but telling gestures: the way she plonks herself down on the couch, grumbling of a “shopping headache”, or how she hastily grabs Julie’s hands to inspect her fingernails.

Criticisms levelled at The Souvenir (of which Hogg is currently working on a sequel) have included that it is a frustrating, unsatisfying film to watch, with Hogg’s distant, cool gaze faulted for keeping Julie’s interiority at arm’s length. I’m not so sure. If anything, Hogg’s unobtrusiveness and unwillingness to cast judgement allows room for more challenging, uncomfortable truths to creep in: the way that love and cruelty can so easily combine; that the visceral directness of desire in adolescence grows more opaque with age; and that hindsight doesn’t always result in clarity, or tidy answers.

Isabella Trimboli

Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic from Melbourne whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. She is also the co-founding editor of music magazine Gusher.

The Souvenir

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