The Souvenir tells the tale as old as time: a young woman, on the verge of realizing her potential, gets involved in a relationship with an older man who’s as destructive as a water damage. She is a film student who has the ability to ask for money from her parents in guise of camera equipment needs and he is an alleged employee at the foreign affairs department who has a habit of asking for small bills. It’s the kind of relationship that feels familiar to the human condition in varying degrees and time, although the film is set in 1980s London (the story is based on director Joanna Hogg’s memories and reflections). The Souvenir has all the elements of an auteur creation, yet Hogg felt no obligation to fill in the spaces between the looks, the small talks, and the connection. She just had to make the film reflect not only what she went through, but also what she became as a result. Then, she added a soft, film reel-inspired filter.
Honor Swinton Byrne is Julie. She is sheltered in her own world in the form of a two-story apartment, throwing parties where she would drift around her guests taking photos and taking in tenants without really knowing how to deal with them. She goes to a film school and works on a project about an impoverished boy living in a port city. However, her attempt to explain her thesis indicates that she has no idea what she’s trying to do. Her lack of understanding of her subject shows that she fails to grasp the reality outside of her apartment. Julie is privileged, naive, and vulnerable to the opinions of others. And Anthony pounces on the earliest opportunity to allure her with a quixotic fantasy
Given who Byrne and what her experience are, it should be no surprise that she’d be able to portray Julie in the purest way possible. Byrne’s roundish features evoke youth and her facial blankness beams freshness and innocence, a quality shared with someone who just started their first day in their internship. Julie is unperturbed by the chicanery kissing her on the lips, even though others have told her that they’re smeared with the influences of heroin. Byrne presents a performance that is expected from an actor in her film debut. It also helps that the actress who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind is Byrne’s mother in real life, Tilda Swinton. The layers added by the offscreen relationship bring depth, warmth, and easiness to Julie and Rosalind’s scenes together. Byrne is a revelation in the sense that you can do anything and be yourself as long as everything is handed to you.
The film’s title refers to the rococo-style French painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard. Bathed in a soft dusky glow, it depicts a young girl in a pink dress carving her and her lover’s initials on a tree after receiving a letter from him. The painting marks the beginning of Julie and Anthony’s courtship, in which they discuss what the girl’s emotions are, to its closure. Its art history roots only exacerbates the pretentiousness of Hogg’s approach to auteurism. The inspiration from the painting adds no depth to the film’s attempt to champion honesty, growth, and learning.
The Souvenir achieves a status of sublimity due to Hogg’s confidence to tell a story that’s very personal yet so dependent to the audience’s feelings. David Raedeker’s mastery of invoking obscurity and delicacy of a memory, setting the senses back in time while depicting complex emotions. Its success leans more to what the crew created in terms of production and not to what the film really is.