“You’re lost. And you’ll always be lost.” That’s what Anthony (Tom Burke) says to Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in one of their many conversations. In writer-director Joanna Hogg’s new film, The Souvenir, that’s most of what we see—talk escalating between them, off-hand to passionate, and an unfolding set of complications as the pair fall in love. Will Julie find herself? Will the film? Answers abound, though none of them easy.
Julie is a film student laboring to articulate the film she’s trying to make. She meets Anthony at a party filled with various friends who drop in and out her life, and the film. The Souvenir moves at that rhythm, with sequences built around shifting social ground—particularly when spending time with Julie’s parents, including Honor’s real-life mother Tilda as the prim matriarch. Hogg’s film is constructed around this kind of autobiographical reality. The rest of the cast, save Swinton Byrne, has a script to work from; Julie, meanwhile, is a creation of improvisation based around Hogg’s own diaries. This makes for a (literally) revelatory performance from Swinton Byrne, and forms the film into a powerful assemblage of emotion over time. We move with Julie as she toggles between trying to be a creative person, someone with a voice worth hearing, and also a person in love with someone who may (or will?) let her down. It’s a credit to Hogg that we hope only for the best outcome—despite the film’s cold and disjointed surface—while bracing for the worst.
Coincidentally, The Souvenir’s title comes from a painting of the same name made in 1778. It features a woman carving initials into a tree upon hearing of her lover’s imminent return. Anthony and Julie agree this woman looks both sad and in love, and the parallels of their joint belief are obvious. This relationship will shape Julie’s life to come, and while it indirectly pierces her bubble of privilege, indeed pushes her to be more vulnerable in her work, we’re left to wonder if it has crushed her heart for all time in the process. Such is life, and art too.