Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), heroine of Joanna Hogg's latest film The Souvenir, is a freshfaced youth whose every emotion registers as loudly as a fork dragged across rice paper; the film on the other hand is like obsidian glass, dark in tone and emotionally opaque--run a fingernail across its polished gleam and you leave not a mark.
Julie is a film student with a whitewalled apartment in Knightsbridge, across from Harrods. Rich much? Well--well-to-do; she keeps asking her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) for money and her mother forks over, but not before asking what it's for (her film project of course). Julie readily admits to having money to her film professors, sitting across from them defending her work and making the admission shyly, apologetically, like admitting she has webbed feet or a skin condition she hides with a turtleneck.
Enter Anthony (Tom Burke) who's by turns arrogant and charming, intimate and aloof. He eases his way into her apartment then her bed; he doesn't quite assume control so much as assume a constant presence over her life--going out to parties together, taking a trip to Venice, borrowing money, criticizing her work and lack of confidence, picking out her underwear (he's partial to lacy black garters).
Then a party where everything is turned on its head: tactless fellow filmmaker Patrick (Richard Ayoade, hilarious) throws out the comment "I'm trying to work out where you two tesselate." When Julie's face responds with a blank he explains: "habitual heroin user and trainee Rotarian."
There's something of Ozu in Hogg's style of storytelling: she does direct cuts from one scene to another, and you often have to work out what's going on: if this is a continuation of the previous scene if it takes place several days or weeks later if it's whole other event happening to the same characters. She skips the heavy drama--a robbery, a death--shows us the messy aftermath. She assumes--arguably the hardest effect to achieve--a simultaneous arm's length distance and easy rapport, mostly medium shots that hold and hold and allows you to study faces and reactions, slow burns and simmering tensions, often with ambivalent results.
Anthony is toxic for Julie--that becomes clear as the film progresses. Is Julie a passive victim? A somewhat willing collaborator to her own exploitation? Is Rosalind too permissive or too negligent with regards to her daughter? Does Anthony really work for the Foreign Office and did he have anything to do with the explosion heard in nearby Harrods (the 1983 IRA bombing)? Is Julie a genuine talent or a dilettante playing with expensive toys?
Hogg offers no psychology to help us crack open her characters and examine their insides, only surfaces actions images that we puzzle over and interpret to the best of our ability. The story is supposedly based on Hogg's own affair with an older man but I'm guessing that the basic facts are a mere springboard on which she fashions her own fiction, not so much what did or didn't happen (which is beside the point) but how significant was this or that event, how she feels about it or thinks she should feel about it, what are the possible consequences to the people involved.
Is the film a feminist work? One can argue that Julie grows over the trajectory of the plot, learning to confront and answer all the older male authorities trying to mansplain to her, and certainly Julie and Rosalind are the film's main focus--but I'm not sure Hogg is much interested in the question. She's a filmmaker with her own particular obsessions, the sexual politics left to work out however they want to work out.
The film's latter third is arguably its most intricately knotted (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!): Anthony asks to come back to Julie and Julie--against our better judgment--agrees. For a while the reconciliation actually seems to work: Anthony is a milder kinder sweeter version of what he used to be, they seem genuinely good for each other (despite the continued ominousness of the film's tone), and Julie seems to be making real progress on her film. More questions raised: is Hogg suggesting Julie is a fool or a saint for taking him back? Does she think redemption is desirable or even possible for a jerk like Anthony? Is it worthwhile trying to live with addiction, particularly an addict susceptible to relapse (but aren't they all?)? Was Anthony's sudden departure tragic end or unexpected relief? How should we feel about Rosalind, for first enabling her daughter's affair, later supporting her through her crisis? Hogg gives us no easy answers.
Honor is Tilda Swinton's daughter but the fact is almost immaterial: she's a wondrous presence and you fall for her from frame one and stay fallen no matter what she does. Tilda is support here but when she steps in she does so with authority; Julie needs Rosalind for better or worse...well Hogg does imply probably for better. Tom Burke as Anthony is hilariously repulsive yet somehow appealing despite all that--by film's end you're not sure what to think of him, in my book an achievement not a failing.
What else to say? One of the best but also one of the most singular films to come out this year--tightlipped and waywardly odd, yet able to draw you out to speculate endlessly on its inscrutable indelible face.
First published in Businessworld 9.13.19