“A rich and layered portrait.”
The agony involved in being privileged is a frequent subject for films like The Souvenir. And like the existing canon of sad-little-rich-girl narratives, moments in it are irritatingly haughty in style and substance. Yet the familiarity of its achingly austere production design and composition are set apart in some manner by the film’s insistence that it knows this luxuriousness is all a bit much. Unfortunately, one is left without enough weight to the film to decide whether the approach was all worth it.
Protagonist Julie (Hope Swinton Byrne) is hoping to direct her first feature film, a Truffaut-reminiscent poverty drama that equates a young boy’s love for his doomed mother with the lamentable decline of Sunderland. The proposition, as her film school professors remind her often, is a clear departure from her lived experience as an awfully wealthy young woman from London, and in serious danger of becoming a regrettably opaque view of something she does not understand.
Not so for director Joanna Hogg, whose delicate touches imbue The Souvenir with an undeniable sense that she understands her subjects deeply and affectionately. With the help of a memorable performance by Tom Burke as Julie’s occasionally charming, occasionally insufferable lover Antony, this film depicts a rich (both literally and figuratively) and layered portrait of high-class ennui and unrest. To call it intimate, however, would be a stretch. Hogg employs a pale, muted color palette, and an unobtrusive, still visual approach, which result in some deeply pleasant aesthetics but a dour sense of distance from the goings-on.
As for the goings-on, there are not terribly many. This is not a problem in itself — of course a film can be intriguing without much plot or action — but The Souvenir opts to show the bare minimum of conflicts, confrontations, and even conversations that cause shifts and developments in Julie and Antony’s lives. In a trite but informative scene during one of Julie’s film school lectures, she and her professor excitedly discuss the visual trickery and intelligence involved in Hitchcock’s Psycho — with particular enthusiasm for his choice to leave all the “action” offscreen, and simply display “the results.” It was not immediately clear that this was meant to serve as a treatise on this film’s own approach, until a number of narrative leaps occur in its second half that are almost completely left off-camera, and to our imagination. Unfortunately, the power Hitchcock was able to find in the offscreen twists of Psycho is not replicated by Hogg; few moments in the dramatic developments of The Souvenir demand much emotional response, and ‘the results’ are more often twee than they are intriguing.
That is not to say the film fails to elicit any reactions. Some lines, in particular ones Burke delivers with his almost amphibian inflection, are not only funny but very interesting, achieving a rare sort of dialogue that is both familiar and excitingly creative. The most involving scene by far, however, is stolen completely by the already-renowned Richard Ayoade, who cameos as a contrived artisan friend of Antony’s who waxes on about film as lifeblood and nosily picks apart Julie’s personality with armchair philosophy. Ayoade is not only a master of tone and delivery in this scene, but a remarkably grounding presence, as at that point the film is somewhat in danger of listing into monotonous luxury — Ayoade’s chain-smoking jerk in a furry leopard-print coat is a most welcome disruption, even for only a few minutes.
Similar interruptions of the austerity are charming and well-crafted. The musical selections are both fun and informative of character. Julie seems content to put on The Psychedelic Furs or Joe Jackson as much as she is to listen to Antony’s selections of opera or her mother’s beloved record of “Moonlight Serenade.” Many details shine brightly; the specificity of Julie’s parents country home, and their references to political and interpersonal realities and expectations in the film’s early-1980’s setting, are intriguing in many ways. The biggest name involved, Tilda Swinton, adds many tics and layers to her character of Julie’s mother that remind one what a gifted actress she is. She plays Julie’s mother with masterful grace and graciousness — though perhaps it is not surprising their onscreen relationship works so well, Tilda being Hope’s real-life mother.
The headlining trio of Swinton Byrne, Swinton, and Burke are all clearly impressive actors. The attention to detail and consistency of aesthetics are also, undoubtedly, impressive. What is less impressive is the difficulty the film has maintaining its relevance. The film lists between ideas, likely an intentional reflection of Julie’s own inability to get the ball rolling on her projects, but nevertheless a needlessly languid approach that feels drawn out too far. One minute Julie is the focus, then Antony, then Antony’s vices, then Julie’s muted reactions to those vices, then her film school experience, then privilege, family, money, terrorism, Venice, the nature of art, and more assorted topics one might find discussed over a wine-drunk meal in Knightsbridge (of which there are many in this script). Again, the variety of topics is not an issue, but the lack of depth, to most of them, is. In particular, the topic of Julie’s privilege is discussed only twice, early in the film, very explicitly, then never revisited at all. One might almost think Hogg believed if she straightforwardly acknowledged, early on, that this is a film about rich, perplexingly discontent young people — who are mostly causing their own problems — and get that out of the way, it would assuage any reservations about the topic and let her ignore the complexities of privilege from then on.
In a way, this is successful; it was not until the film ended that I felt a creeping unease with the unapologetic snootiness of it all. But looking back, there seems little reason to keep it all so uptight. Hogg’s film is sure to please those with an affection for austere glamour, but will likely repel those who find the issues on display middling and dull, and who find films like these more arrogant than artistic.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller