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New Release Review - THE SOUVENIR

the souvenir review
A film student embarks on a troubled relationship with a heroin addict.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joanna Hogg

Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade

the souvenir poster


"Write about your personal experiences" is the reductive advice so often given to young artists. But what if, like so many young people, you haven't had any personal experiences worth documenting? If artists are enriched by personal experience, why is it that so many great artists have already given us their best work by the time they hit 40? And what if you have a personal experience that's so personal you're reluctant to share it with the world?

British writer/director Joanna Hogg had already turned 40 when she made her first feature film, 2008's Unrelated, and it's only now, as Hogg nears her 60th birthday, that she's drawing on a very personal experience for her fourth feature, The Souvenir.

the souvenir review


Loosely based on her own experience as a young film student in 1980s London, The Souvenir casts Honor Swinton Byrne as Hogg's surrogate, Julie, who attends film school while residing in a plush Knightsbridge apartment paid for by Mummy (Tilda Swinton, real life mother of Swinton Byrne) and Daddy (James Spencer Ashworth). Julie's instructors advise her to draw on her personal experiences for her thesis film, but she insists on making what sounds like an insufferably patronising film about the working class Northern English city of Sunderland. At parties, Julie finds her privilege mocked by friends, and so she withdraws into herself, as she finds, for probably the first time in her life, that her privilege is a burden.

Then Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a handsome and well heeled fellow toff who holds a mysterious position at the Foreign Office. Unlike her friends and teachers, Anthony encourages Julie to explore her creative ideas, though he does so in a way that subtly preys on her insecurities. There's something immediately off about Anthony, who constantly borrows money from Julie (who in turn borrows from her mother) despite holding down a good job. He has a tendency to disappear without notice, claiming the nature of his job means he has to keep secrets from Julie from her own protection.

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At a dinner party, a guest (Richard Ayoade) drops the detail that Anthony is "a habitual heroin user," as though casually mentioning he enjoys a few too many donuts. One afternoon Julie returns home to find her apartment has been burgled, but while it's clear to the audience just what's going on, Julie is oblivious, or maybe she just doesn't want to admit that the man she loves is a wrong 'un. As the relationship progresses, Anthony becomes increasingly troublesome, derailing Julie's education and turning her into a quivering wreck. Ironically, it's Julie whose appearance begins to take on that of a dope fiend, thanks to the sleepless nights caused by her constant worries over her lover.

the souvenir review


There are some viewers who will find Julie's refusal to walk away from Anthony too frustrating to endure, but anyone who understands how human emotions really work will fully empathise with her plight. Julie's endurance in the face of such emotional abuse stands in contrast to the 'cancel culture' that has swept into Anglo-Saxon society in recent years, bringing the idea that troublesome people should be discarded like three-month-old toothbrushes. But that's not how our hearts and minds work, at least not those of us who aren't sociopaths. Most of us want to see the good in people and believe that redemption is possible, even when the evidence mounts to the contrary.

Anthony's addiction will prove a similar test for viewers. There are those who write off drug addicts as criminals who should be locked up, but anyone who has ever known someone burdened by addiction knows it consumes them to such a degree that they're literally no longer the same person they once were, but rather a human husk whose only point of existence is to feed their addiction. Some viewers will scream at Julie to get out of the relationship, like those heartless judges who blame women for refusing to call the police on their abusive husbands, but anyone with an ounce of humanity will understand her commendable if perhaps misguided selflessness.

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The Souvenir is at once Hogg's most accessible and accomplished work to date. It's beautifully shot by David Raedeker, with notable production design by StΓ©phane Collonge. Julie's apartment is one of the great physical spaces of recent cinema, its walls seeming to gradually close in on Julie and Anthony the more their relationship spirals out of control. The living room and kitchen are divided by a giant two-way mirror that seems to compel Julie to gaze at herself, as though it's somehow trying to make her face the reality of her situation. At one point, Anthony shatters the mirror while undergoing a nightmarish cold turkey, and its cracks become the elephant in the room when Julie's parents later come over for dinner - it's clear Julie's reluctance to confront a situation wasn't licked off the ground.

the souvenir review


Hogg's film is inspired by her own memories, and as such the narrative is often disjointed and fragmented. The timeline appears to anachronistically flip back and forth from the early to mid-80s, and there are moments when it's clear we've skipped over an important revelation or confrontation, as though we the audience have walked into a couple's house an hour after they've had a blazing row. The snippets of pretentious arguments and debates between students and teachers will bring back specific memories for anyone who attended film school, but the ups and downs of Julie and Anthony's relationship will likely strike a chord for most viewers.

The Souvenir takes its title from a painting by the artist Jean-HonorΓ© Fragonard, but it's also a reference to what we take away from our relationships. Ultimately it's a heartfelt tribute to those who make it out the other side of toxic partnerships, and to those who succumb along the way.

The Souvenir is in UK/ROI cinemas August 30th.


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