The Souvenir (2019)

Directed by Joanna Hogg

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The best movies, it seems to me, don’t always reveal themselves fully until long after the final shot.  A great movie burrows its way into your mind and may even start to feel like a dream you’ve had.  If it really speaks to you in some way it may even feel indistinguishable from a memory.  Or maybe not quite that, but it becomes something with which you have your own personal relationship, a conversation starter even if just with yourself.  A great movie asks for your participation and receives it.

Or maybe I’m speaking out of my ass, but these are things on my mind after watching Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a poetic, at times frustrating, certainly slow depiction of an abusive relationship over the course of a year or so.

When I walked out of the theater a man who walked out midway through the screening (and then twenty minutes later trudged reluctantly back in) said to his friend, “I didn’t see any redeeming qualities,” to which his friend replied, “I agree with you a hundred percent.”  And perhaps their sentiment is not wrong, this movie didn’t exactly leap off the screen, but that being said it still feels like an invitation, and to have any possibility of enjoying it, like with so many good slow movies, you have to be open to that offer.

The film follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a London film school student, who falls in love with a heroin-addicted, egocentric older man named Anthony (Tom Burke).  We hardly see them fall in love, rather it happens somewhere offscreen.  They meet, and then it takes us a moment to realize that they have been intimate for quite some time.  Once it’s clear to the audience that they’re involved, there’s a wonderful shot in Julie’s apartment in which the mirrors of her living room play tricks on our eyes and make it seem as if Anthony simply opened the door to her soul and stepped right in, without taking off his shoes no less.

We might have a bit of catching up to do, in fact we will throughout much of the film.  It’s as if we are a friend of Julie’s to whom she explains this sudden relationship with no hope of conveying the depths of her connection to this man.  We are suspicious of their relationship because it’s so clear to us that Anthony is a mess.  The track marks on his arm are red flags, but it never occurs to Julie what they mean, not until a dinner party guest points it out.  You can see the shame on her face that she didn’t piece it together, a sense of embarrassment which continually keeps her tagging along in his shadow.

The relationship isn’t outwardly abusive, nothing physical and hardly, if ever, any screaming.  Instead it’s quieter, no less obvious and frustrating, but it occurs on a more unspoken level.  He smokes a cigarette and lectures her about something or other at the end of a fancy meal.  When the check arrives, given to him, he casually hands it to her to pay.  He asks repeatedly for money and tosses aside her understandable concern and disappointment with his behavior, like when he literally steals from her.  Each conversation ends up with her apologizing to him.

At some point, however, he demonstrates a more caring side.  It never exactly redeems him, but it adds more nuance to what was before an irritatingly one-sided romance.  At the very least it shows us some of what Julie sees in him, opening up the door just enough for the necessary audience buy in (in order for the conclusion to fully resonate).

So that’s the story, a relationship between a young rich girl with high-minded but scattered aspirations and a charismatic but sociopathic ghost.

To dismiss this story because of the uglier sides depicted is too easy.  There’s a clear point here, and Hogg makes it painfully obvious that Anthony is a mess and that Julie is hopelessly in over her head.  She’s getting at something, and the richly textured, pensive qualities of the film make me want to try and investigate what’s being given to us.  The film, as opaque and slow as it might be, is made with a clear purpose.  It’s beautiful and compelling in a way that may offer few answers but asks questions I don’t mind giving time to.

It’s maybe little more than two hours in someone else’s brain, but that’s worth it on its own.  The film is heavily autobiographical, from what I’ve read, of Joanna Hogg’s own film school days.  It’s a personal, maybe a bit too insular, representation of something from her own past, almost like she is still investigating this time in her life to this day (much as something like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote reflects certain attitudes in Terry Gilliam’s life and career or how Vertigo seems to say a lot about Hitchcock’s fascination with his blonde-haired leading ladies).

It’s also fascinating that Julie, the Joanna Hogg surrogate, is so concerned with making films about experiences outside of her own.  Her professors will continually push to know why she rejects her own experience and attempts to recreate someone else’s.  Julie tries to figure out why but has a hard time putting it into words, reflecting a conversation she has with another student who expresses frustration that he hasn’t found his “voice.”

We only see snippets of the films on which she’s working, and they feel to me to be futile attempts to capture what we see her experiencing within this story.  She may have in mind to bring to life someone else’s experience and story, but she can’t help but fall back on her own concerns, thoughts and ambitions.  At this point in her life, however, she struggles to capture all the things racing through her mind.

It’s kind of beautiful then that The Souvenir appears to be some sort of culmination of this chapter in her life, assuming you view Julie and Joanna as almost a single entity.  To follow this point to its conclusion I’ll choose to look at them this way.  It suggests a more complete catharsis, someone revisiting her own past and coming to terms with it, finding peace and meaning in her own experience as opposed to running away from it and denying who she is or was.

But then again maybe I’m overanalyzing it.  All I can really say is that it’s a beautiful, slow film that is made with enough obvious skill to make me want to figure out what it’s trying to say.

Up Next: Fargo (1996), The Yakuza (1974), Absence of Malice (1981)

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