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THE SOUVENIR (2019)

Greetings again from the darkness. Viewers of writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature will likely be divided into two distinct groups: those who find it to be a beautifully artistic psychological study, and those who find it to be a painfully slow watch. Fortunately, most who would fall into the latter group will likely skip it altogether, and we can only hope those in the first group will seek it out and encourage similar-minded film fans to attend. Surely both groups can agree that it features a terrific breakout lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton).

Ms. Swinton-Byrne stars as Julie, a young London film school student. She’s soon drawn to Anthony (Tom Burke), an odd man who is somehow simultaneously laid back and condescending. Their relationship builds as he works some vague job at the Foreign Office, and giving every indication that something’s not quite right. Many moments of normal life are shown; however we soon learn that Anthony is a master manipulator, and his off-handed requests for ‘a tenner’ or sticking Julie with a restaurant tab go deeper than being a simple jerk. We know heartbreak is coming for her; we just don’t know how when or how hard.

Tilda Swinton (a long-time friend of director Hogg) appears in a few scenes as Julie’s mom, and as you would expect, she perfectly captures the mother-daughter dynamics. Of course Julie is a film student struggling to make ends meet, but with her frequent requests for ‘mom loans’ coinciding with the Anthony relationship, mother knows best. Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 18th century painting gives the film its title, and provides a terrific scene with Julie and Anthony.

Later, when Anthony tells Julie, “You’re inviting me to do this to you”, we recognize this is an abusive relationship similar to those many women have endured. Set in the 1980’s, a doomed relationship looks eerily similar regardless of the era. The film serves as an example of how we sit in judgment of the love lives of others, while often remaining blind (or is it hopelessly optimistic) to our own relationship issues.

Ms. Hogg shot on film and there are some memorable shots throughout – especially within Julie’s apartment. There is a recurring split-screen shot where a wall divides what we see in the kitchen with what’s happening in the living area – we see characters on each side. This is the anti-Marvel movie. No special effects. No superheroes. And the only worlds in peril are those of average, flawed people like us.

There is a segment involving an analysis of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, and it’s clear director Hogg learned lessons about what not to show. There is also a reference to another Hitchcock classic with the tailored grey suit Tom buys for Julie and their trip to Venice. Alfonso Cuaron scored big with ROMA, a very intimate look at his personal life, and filmmaker Hogg’s film is in that same vein. It’s extremely well made and beautiful to look at, and is likely to be quite challenging for viewers. The payoff comes after much patience and effort and investment into figuring out these characters. It’s an arthouse film with improvised dialogue (bonus points for Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”). This was a grand jury prize winner at Sundance, and the sequel is already in production … good news for some of us, while inexplicable to others.

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David is a lifelong movie lover and long time movie blogger ... holding a true appreciation for the dedicated artists who make up the filmmaking community. He welcomes the lively debate and discussion inspired by the interesting movies.