Film review: The Souvenir (2019)

 

The Souvenir 2019.jpg

 

The review contains a discussion of the characters but no major spoilers. Won the Grand Jury Prize for Best International Drama at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Also a 2020 Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best International Film.

Set in the UK in the 1980s, a semi-autobiographical story about the director (Joanna Hogg) as a young artist in the form of film student Julie. Probably will be best remembered for the performance of Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. The two Swinton’s play mother and daughter on screen.

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Twentysomething Julie (Honor Swinton) behaves stupidly as she knows what her boyfriend is up to. Maybe she wanted to escape her overprotective parents no matter if the alternative was dubious. There’s a sense she’s too nice and loves Anthony (Tom Burke) despite his behaviour. She is most likely attracted to his experience and knowledge since he is a few years her senior. Perhaps Julie used Anthony as material for her film work, he is a mysterious, secretive man. Her privileged background also plays a part in the relationship and in her film projects.

Joanna Hogg: “I was very interested—first and foremost, really—in portraying the development of a young woman artist. I think that came out of a frustration at often seeing the lives of male artists portrayed

The characters are interesting enough to interpret so a pity the two leads have poor chemistry. Apparently the two actors met each other with no rehearsal on the first day of shooting. A missed opportunity with some mystery (as suggested by the poster above), but with little emotion and difficult to care about the characters. Julie grows through meeting new people and the film has been described as a coming of age self-portrait set in and around film school. A dinnner conversation with friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade) is a highlight, taking us behind the scenes of life as film students/filmmakers.
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Part of the narrative is an 80s nostalgia trip with the filmmaker going so far as to use the gold gilt bed Hogg owned at the time, and recreating the apartment environment she lived in. There’s also a soundtrack of music from the era and some opera.
As Hogg expressed: “It was important to furnish the set of Flat L with these personal items. They were very much the key to accessing my memories and feelings from that time”.

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The title is a reference to the painting The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (above) which the couple talk about at a gallery, and there is a homage to it later on. The director was asked about the significance of the painting in an interview: “I was shown that painting by the man that I knew at the time, and it was important, though it was less important to me and more important to him”.

The Rotten Tomatoes score is polarizing from critics (90%) and audiences (34%).
Hogg has a follow-up in the works and said that part 2 “is not a sequel in a traditional sense”.
Rating 6/10

 

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

15 thoughts on “Film review: The Souvenir (2019)

  1. I liked it very much, especially on a second viewing. I thought about it as a companion piece of sorts to PAIN & GLORY, as a director’s “self portrait”. Much more accessible than EXHIBITION, and I preferred that one overall, but I found the relationship here compelling as well, and liked both Burke and Swinton Byrne’s performances; she in particular brings a lot of freshness to the screen. It was enjoyable seeing her interact with her real life mother, and I thought the final scenes between them were very moving in an understated way. As often in Hogg’s work there are some strained, awkward moments that I think come from the improvised dialogue, but also a lot of truthful and touching ones too. Interesting that she chose to make the character’s “privilege” a self-conscious issue this time, as it’s something that’s been criticised in relation to her earlier films. Anyway, looking forward to the next part and seeing how Julie’s journey develops. Did you enjoy the soundtrack, btw?

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    1. @Alex: Thanks for your thoughts. Makes sense to compare Souvenir to Pain & Glory. A very personal project by Hogg and I liked the Hemingway-like approach where some aspects are hidden beneath the surface, just like in real life.
      Unfortunately I struggled to connect but as you said parts were understated and subtle. More realistic than the glossy Hollywood love stories. Was an interesting juxtaposing of her newer music and his opera which distinguishes them as separate people. The opera stuff wasn’t my scene, I enjoyed the 80s music. If the privileged should depict the less privileged is a tough question, I’d say you should make art about “what you know”. I think you’re right a rewatch would help.

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    1. @Brittani: The female coming of age is interesting enough. Not as progressive as other female lead films. Set in the early 80s, the main character Julie looks up to men though she does have a will of her own. But makes sense she’s unsure of herself as she’s still young.

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  2. I haven’t seen it, but seems like it requires a wee bit more work and patience than I have for movies just now. I’ll throw it on the list of ones to look out for, but I’ll not be in a rush.

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    1. @Wolfman: The pacing is slow and the story a bit self-indulgent. So I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend. If you are interested in film school in 80s England for an upper-class young woman then it’s worth a shot.

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  3. Thanks for your review it was bang on what I thought of it as well. I found it a bit too understated. It had its moments but as you said there wasn’t much chemistry between the couple who are in the midst of all of these power plays, so the relationship, at least for me, didn’t feel that believable. It is interesting you say the actors didn’t know each other before filming, I think that explains the lack of chemistry. It was a bit too slow, still not 100% sure what to make of this film.

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    1. @Content Catnip: You’re welcome. The movie didn’t have much warmth though I liked the scene in bed with them deciding how much space each should have. That was believable but you’re right there was a power play going on. Not a romantic relationship in the usual sense of the word. The fact Julie didn’t really question him about what he was doing was odd. Perhaps because of the famous British reserve. As I said in the review, she didn’t seem fussy and any man would probably do 🙂

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      1. Yes that was the impression I got too, the whole dynamic between them was weird and not believable, there was no real passion either in how they interacted with each other. I thought parts of the storytelling were compelling, the use of camera angles was good to convey meaning and the way it escalated to a bad end. I won’t give spoilers though. What I found interesting was the setting and the age that it was filmed in – the early 80’s, it was a mystical and magical time for music and culture in Britain and in a way I wished I had of been young when this kind of music came out – Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths, etc.

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    2. @Content Catnip: I agree the early 80s was a golden time for music in the UK. I love the Joy Division and The Cure albums from that time. The Souvenir was a trip down memory lane for Joanna Hogg and the things she remembered.

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