Finally, A Film Worth Seeing: Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”

May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir”

Note: This post contains plot spoilers.

Normally I see scores of movies in theaters each year, so it was odd to realize I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen one on a big screen. Comfort and convenience were part of my reason for staying in, but mainly there was nothing I wanted to see. Superhero movies bore me; horror isn’t my thing, and the rest of the offerings were far less compelling than HBO’s “Barry,” or any number of shows streaming on Netflix and Amazon.

ArcLight Hollywood, for many years my second home, apparently took note of my absence. In March I got an email reading, “We notice that you haven’t used your ArcLight membership recently,” but their offer of a discount in the cafe wasn’t inducement enough to return when there was nothing to see.

Then last week, as I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever go to the movies again, a film opened that actually interested me. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” about a doomed first relationship, is a romance like no other, an autobiographical story layered with documentary footage and stills, historical and cultural markers and echos of earlier psychological dramas. The result is a far richer and more complex film than the well-trod story line–naive young woman gets involved with older, troubled man–would suggest. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

Set in England in the early to mid-1980’s, “The Souvenir” follows Julie, a privileged, unworldly young film student, through a multi-year affair with Anthony, a worldly, decade older art historian (and Foreign Office employee, or so he says) who casts himself as her intellectual and sexual mentor. Anthony is pompous toff imbued with the confidence of a first-class education (Cambridge and, before that, Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school whose silver-buttoned blue uniform coat he ostentatiously wears as a robe around Julie’s fancy Knightsbridge flat). Despite his generally condescending attitude, Julie is smitten.

As weekend visits to their families make clear, Julie’s background is considerably wealthier than Anthony’s, but her lack of confidence and sophistication make her his social inferior. Though 21 or 22, Julie is so green that she tries to make a film about a subject she knows nothing about: an impoverished, soon-to-be orphaned boy in Sunderland, a northern city hollowed out by the demise of its shipbuilding industry. Her cluelessness extends to Anthony, whose deceit and drug addiction Julie fails to notice even after seeing track marks on his arm. Not until a friend of Anthony’s explicitly says so does Julie realize her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and even then she seems in need of a diagram.

From that point, things go from bad to worse before reaching a predictable conclusion, but Julie and Anthony’s dysfunctional love story is not what makes “The Souvenir” remarkable. Rather, it’s the details: snippets of radio broadcasts that firmly place the film in the Thatcher years; the archival footage and stills of London and Sunderland, shot by Hogg herself; Julie’s brief punk rock interruption of Anthony’s classical music; the IRA bombing of Harrod’s, whose lighted facade Julie can see from her window. At other times, “The Souvenir” skillfully evokes past eras: in London Julie and Anthony dine among older couples in elegant rooms untouched by time, and travel to Venice by train. In the beautiful Venetian sequence–which Hitchcock would have loved–Julie wears a custom-made silk travel suit and a taffeta ballgown straight out of the 1930’s.

The other reason to see “The Souvenir” is the acting. Though Tom Burke is excellent as Anthony, he’s outshone by Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie in a watchful, nuanced way that is all the more impressive given her lack of previous acting experience. While it’s true that she is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Swinton Byrne doesn’t resemble her mother physically or technically. She is distinct, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.

Yet the greatest revelation of “The Souvenir” is Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind. When I last saw her, in “Suspiria,” Swinton played three major roles: a Pina Bausch-like dance teacher, an elderly male psychiatrist and the monstrous un-dead founder of the German dance company where the story takes place. In the latter two roles she was completely unrecognizable, but in “The Souvenir” Swinton plays a character from her own aristocratic world: a wealthy wife and mother with beautiful manners, a large country house and a London pied-à-terre. She’s kind of woman who, when she comes up to London to visit her daughter, casually brings along one of her dogs. With her ladylike voice, gently curled grey hair, cashmere sweaters and tartan skirts, Swinton transforms herself into someone we haven’t seen her play before: the woman she was brought up to be, and whom she rejected. In a career full of acting feats, Rosalind might be one of Swinton’s greatest creations.

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