How many times have you thought, when hearing about a woman whose boyfriend had harmed her (or her children): Whatever did she see in him? That’s the question you might be asking as you watch “The Souvenir,” Joanna Hogg’s film about Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a film student in eighties England who takes up with Anthony (Tom Burke), a smug know-it-all who’s obviously a phony, and remains devoted to him despite behavior that’s increasingly erratic and dangerous.
Hogg doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to the question, but the picture is nonetheless fascinating simply because it is so rigorously autobiographical. (Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker profile of the writer-director shows that in remarkable detail.) The grounding in fact, or at least in Hogg’s perspective on her own past and almost oppressive need to examine and share it, gives the film a peculiar but compelling subtext. Of course, it helps that “The Souvenir” is not just an engrossing memory-play, but a powerful drama about a modern Svengali.
Julie is introduced as a well-to-do film student who proposes for her graduation project a painfully earnest drama set in the crumbling working-class city of Sunderland. Her teachers—who seem to have doubts about her as well as the idea—are fairly dismissive, but allow that as she seems to have the necessary resources, she might as well proceed.
So she does, but not before meeting Anthony at a party. Presenting himself as a Foreign Office officer, he appears impressive in his fitted suit with a cigarette held casually in his fingers as he opines disdainfully on all sorts of issues. Suddenly, inevitably, they are a couple, and he has moved into her nicely-appointed flat. And despite the fact that she is apparently paying for everything—including the meals we see them share in posh restaurants—her parents are accepting of him.
For the most part her friends are as well, though one of them (Richard Ayoade) is blunt enough to express bewilderment about their relationship over dinner one night.
Yet they remain together, despite the fact that it becomes obvious that Anthony isn’t merely a parasite, but an addict who will resort to stealing from Julie to meet his needs. Even after he stages a burglary of the apartment, she goes off with him on a vacation to Venice. And she remains committed even when he falls completely apart and her mother (Tilda Swinton) must comfort her as they await word of what’s happened to him.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Hogg makes us understand the need that Anthony fulfills for Julie; it would be more correct to say that in making the film, she is grappling with her own past, and inviting us along to observe her struggle. What’s clear is that she has been successful in persuading her colleagues to join her search. She uses Swinton-Byrne’s natural unsteadiness to mirror her own youthful vulnerability, and elicits a performance from Burke that is a model of smarmy duplicity masked by utter self-confidence. Swinton seconds her own daughter beautifully, eschewing the artificiality that makes so many of her turns so engagingly odd to capture the sense of clueless support that characterizes the buttoned-up, dithering Rosalind. The supporting cast members show themselves committed to Hogg’s vision as well.
So do the craft contributors, from production designer Stephane Collonge and costumer Grace Snell, who worked to recreate not merely a convincing 1980s look but the particulars of Hogg’s environment, to cinematographer David Raedeker, whose visuals cunningly mix clarity with the haziness of recollection. One must also note the cunning selection of background songs, each of which is chosen to comment on the action quite directly,
The title of Hogg’s film comes from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, to which Anthony introduces Julie. It encapsulates the themes of skewered mentorship and painful memory that the writer-director is attempting to convey, and largely succeeds in doing.