Savina Petkova on Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir‘ (2019)
A small 18th-century painting in the frivolous rococo style depicts a sumptuously dressed young woman carving her lover’s name into a tree trunk right after receiving a letter declaring his unbridled affection. The sensitive soft colours and gentle brush strokes form a halo, bequeathing the girl a sense of innocence in her private act of love confession. Today that same painting hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, providing the name of Joanna Hogg’s latest feature, The Souvenir. A beautifully composed drama about a spring of emotions coated under a veil of light-heartedness and artistic evocation, the film tells the story of a tormenting love affair that, similar to rococo art, came into being with the help of wealthy sponsors, in this case, middle-class family financial support.
Julie (the alleged name of the girl from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting), played by cherubically faced Honor Swinton Byrne, is an aspiring young film student in early 1980s England. She wants to do her graduation film on working-class dock workers in Sunderland, but she lives in a cosy Knightsbridge flat mainly paid by her wealthy parents, chiefly represented by Tilda Swinton (Honor’s actual mother). While her film studies orbit the plot before slowly drifting farther and farther away, the story’s propeller is Anthony (an endearing Tom Burke), an older Cambridge graduate, bon-vivant and self-sustained restaurant connoisseur. His intervention whips her out of her class tourism of checkered shirts and jeans, house parties, and art-as-rebellion discourse.
The love story takes time to turn sour. While Julie is tipped off about Anthony’s hardcore heroin habit, her naïveté keeps her safe in an enamoured deeply charming world. Remembering one’s own blindness in the face of first love, one succumbs to the sticky substance that eventually takes the place of the rug pulled underneath one’s feet. In their first meeting, Anthony enchants her with challenging criticism on her film’s voyeuristic topic, summarising the role of cinema as not to show life as it is, rather “life as it is experienced through this soft machine”. The soft lens of Joanna Hogg is delicate towards Julie, identifying with her lover’s gaze towards the chic Anthony, reducing all the people’s warnings to muffled murmurs. On a visit to the Wallace collection, he describes the girl’s look in the aforementioned painting as one of “sad determination”, a definition that will be prophetic to Julie’s own devotion to the turbulent relationship.
Most of the film is confined to interiors and following Hogg’s intense accentuation of the emotional weight of architecture in Exhibition (2013), we breathe the air of Julie’s house, getting acquainted with every corner and its lower and upper floor alike. The symmetry in portraying the sunlit ground floor, cutting the frame between the dining room and kitchen, becomes a stage for shared breakfasts, sweet name-calling, and silent grudges. The relationship grows and decays, but the episodes in which he is absent for long periods of time define the atmospheric absence that echoes between the flat’s walls. Julie’s ennui is aurally saturated with Anthony’s absence, as the images are sharp, deep focused long shots of the interior, whereas the couple’s intimacy is portrayed with soft focus and blurred close ups, as sparse dialogue flies by.
When out, the couple attend all the priggish restaurants, indulging in afternoon tea, showering themselves in champagne, discussing life as they want it to be, regardless of the terrifying reality of Anthony’s drug addiction. The film’s second half is less forgiving, as Julie’s debt to support her lover increases, and they decide to take a romantic trip to Venice. This holiday splits the film in half and is of pivotal importance, yet it is shown only in fragments. The dream-like string of scattered memories is the emotional backbone of the film, while being tucked away between the creases of a lavish dress (the costumes are astounding) or around the corners of signature Venetian canal alleys. Glimpses of happiness resurface conjoined with brief moments of revelation — Hogg’s masterful insight into the couple’s rambunctious holiday is the visual equivalent of involuntary memory and how it creeps up when we least suspect. Sentimental, erotic, and hidden – the confrontational crux of the story remains untold.
Surfaces are one of the main characters in The Souvenir. Julie’s dining room has mirrors instead of walls and much of the dialogue is portrayed as reflections of the actual speaker. The mirrored walls have voices, witnessing the relationship’s emotional trajectory. Even when the mirror-wall gets broken during one of Anthony’s outbursts, the next day sees a family dinner overlooked by cracked reflections. The broken mirror is both a disruption in the practical everyday and is also a signal of the inevitable truth — to each their own imperfections. The Souvenir is a story of ultimate acceptance, class dichotomy, and the crucifix that love can be. Painted in pale, pastel colours, the sensuality of the picture is enhanced by sequences so blurred as if they are shot through a glass surface. Much like first love and what remains of it, the film leaves a gentle sting and much anticipation for its promised follow-up, The Souvenir: Part II.
Screened as part of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival