The Souvenir: Two Swintons, and an autobiographical take on an artistic voice muted by an affair

By Thom Ernst

Rating: B-plus

British director Joanna Hogg's fourth film, The Souvenir, is a semi-autobiographical story of a filmmaker struggling to find her voice while navigating through the turmoil of a disruptive affair. 

Out of bits from her own life, Hogg creates a studied and illuminating look at a filmmaker on the cusp of self-discovery; remarkably personal and obsessively detailed. The 1980s of Hogg's youth is duplicated in style and music, to the point where she builds an exact replica of her old apartment. 

Even as memory, the relationship between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) is fraught.

Even as memory, the relationship between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) is fraught.

Even the dialogue—much of which is improvised—is scripted from Hogg's recollection of events, as well as from diaries and from letters written by her then lover, depicted in the film as an erudite but troubled academic named Anthony (Tom Burke). Hogg's dedication to being authentic stops short of revealing who Anthony is in real life, just as she chooses to disguise her own persona inside a character named Julie.

Julie is Hogg at twenty. She is played by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of actor Tilda Swinton who appears in the film as Julie's mother.  Scenes between mother and daughter - both real and onscreen - resonate with a clarity that would be hard to emulate were the bond not already in place. Swinton Bryce has not acted before and yet she manages an understated and fully-articulate performance without resorting to heightened emotions. Indeed, much of the film could be considered well-mannered even when diving into areas of addiction and toxic romances.  

It is Anthony who introduces Julie to The Souvenir, a painting by Jean-Honorѐ Fragonard depicting a young woman carving initials into a tree, presumably the initials of the person who wrote the letters that lay sprawled at her feet. Who’s to say why and how art inspires us? It's unclear to me how Fragonard's painting was so significant to Hogg as a young woman that she would make it the signature hook on which to hang an autobiography.   

This is a filmmaker in full control of her craft. But as accomplished as The Souvenir  is, the story it chooses to tell can leave audiences both mesmerized and alienated. There is the problem of Hogg's non-judgmental reflections that edges uncomfortably close to romanticizing a relationship that was almost certainly abusive. And then there is Julie's conflict with her own privileged upbringing that threatens to undermine her credibility as an artist. It's a risky and challenging narrative that asks empathy for a character lamenting the curse of wealth and privilege. 

The Souvenir won the jury prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; it's the sort of film lauded by critics, festival juries and film students only to quietly fade out on the independent screens of repertory theatres. But there is a Souvenir II already in the works, which makes this something of an art-house miracle. 

Art-house movies rarely call for sequels let alone a self-reflecting biography from a filmmaker many audiences will be discovering for the first time. Were this a project that came out of exaggerated chutzpah or inflated self-importance then The Souvenir would likely fall flat. It's Hogg's steadfast dedication and confidence in her story that makes the movie worthwhile. 

But for as many people who'll admire the movie for its frankness and methodic pace, there will be twice as many folks scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is about.

The Souvenir. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Starring Honor Swinton Bryce, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton. Opens Friday June 7 in Toronto and Vancouver and on June 14 in Montreal.