When going back through memories of past events, old friends, and lost loves, it’s easy to get lost in them like a daydream. Trying to remember and re-experience every emotion and sensation like the first time, making sure you can recount as many details as possible. These experiences are not just fun to look back on, but they can also be eye-opening. Hindsight is 20/20, and the fuzzy, half-remembered life experiences can ironically become the most clear once we look back on them in context.
The Souvenir, the latest film by British director Joanna Hogg, feels like one of those nostalgic episodes, looking back at a relationship that was equally full of romantic love and destructive self-loathing. The main character, Julie, is a young film student with a story she wants to tell, about an impoverished, shy young boy living in a harbor town, obsessed with his mom, experiencing trauma at a young age. Such a story seems distant from Julie’s own privileged upbringing, and she herself seems unsure of her ability to film it. This is despite her applying to film school and borrowing hundreds of dollars from her parents she may never be able to pay back, in pursuit of this singular artistic expression.
Then she meets and becomes romantically involved with Anthony, an older, seemingly wealthy man interested in pretentiousness, condescension, and mysteries. As their relationship deepens, she learns that Anthony is a heroin addict, throwing a wrench into Julie’s life, forcing her to face new challenges and suffer through some self-reflection.
The Souvenir is presented like a series of snapshots, feeling as if we’re going through Julie’s memories of this time period. Scenes rarely feel connected together like a cohesive sequence of events; rather, they ebb and flow, playing out in realistic ways and ending abruptly. Despite the scenes being placed in the order of events, time is irrelevant; what matters are the emotions felt, the ideas expressed, and the symbolic nature of hindsight. Many scenes are simple, even mundane: Julie and Anthony sitting at the kitchen table, Julie taking one of her film classes, the couple walking through a field with Julie’s parents. Yet it’s difficult not to notice the metaphors in these quiet moments, like a reflective glass wall with a single broke square.
These emotions come from Joanna Hogg’s direction, which is minimal and non-intrusive. Her camera is often static or moves in simple ways. It rarely calls attention to itself, which forces the audience to pay attention to what’s on screen. The Souvenir feels like a memory because it’s not concerned with how the frame is moving; instead, it’s focused on what’s already there.
The movie has a quiet, nostalgic feel, which makes the explosions of emotions and drug-fueled rampages all the more upsetting. While never extreme or uncharacteristic, these moments hit harder because they’re squished between happier or calm moments, going from a romantic dinner or an awkward late night car ride to hopeless arguments and Anthony’s unflattering drug benders.
Despite Anthony’s initial pretentiousness, I found myself invested in his relationship with Julie. There are few big revelations or milestones in their romance, but seeing their small, mundane interactions actually helps to convey the love they feel, or at least seemingly feel. Their romance is full of hardship and pain, but there’s also passion and sweetness. Neither of them are perfect, but Anthony’s imperfections are more obvious, while Julie’s faults are unsuspecting.
What sells this relationship the most are the main performances from Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie and Tom Burke as Anthony. Both actors are fantastic, conveying many subtleties in their movements and mannerisms. They never say “I love you,” but the sentiment is clear. Hogg’s direction and script perform the other half of the legwork, allowing the actors to be natural and normal, selling the realistic dialogue and scenarios.
Tilda Swinton, as Julie’s mother, gives a wonderful performance as always, despite taking up very little of the run time. Yet, as the film progresses and we see more small bits of her relationship with Julie, her presence can be felt, like a reminder eating at the back of your mind, telling you exactly what’s wrong or how this could become worse.
As an audience member, it’s difficult not to form strong opinions about Julie and Anthony’s relationship. Being Julie’s first serious relationship, it’s easy to pretend we know what’s right for her. The reflection their relationship prompts also contributes to the nostalgic feeling, as we constantly call on our own past experiences to inform this present, mostly fictional one. Joanna Hogg’s films are famously autobiographical, so it makes sense that this one would feel so intimate, detailed, and ultimately wistful.
In general, The Souvenir is a very personal and emotional film that slowly burns towards its conclusion, at once thematically fulfilling and enticingly open-ended. The film concludes at the literal end of the relationship, but that doesn’t mean the emotions and effects of this love do not linger. All relationships inform our present and future, and for artists, they inform their creative output.
By the end, Julie may not be aware of how her love for Anthony will affect her, but Hogg certainly is, as The Souvenir is the result of years of analysis and assessments of the past. Those years of self-reflection have resulted in a film that is equally rich and impactful. It’s perfect for inspiring discussion and contemplation, both of the film and of ourselves.