Direction: Joanna Hogg
Country: UK / USA
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a timeless arthouse gem and an evocative piece of cinema that conjures up classic European works, from Wim Wenders to Jacques Rivette, with hints of Michelangelo Antonioni. Moreover, the film is a sensitive personal statement, a look-back portrait of Hogg as a young artist filled with sincerity and focus. Regardless the influences, she was able to create something bold and unique, demonstrating an outstanding directorial maturity.
Lyrically photographed by David Raedeker’s idiosyncratic eyes and boasting a terrific soundtrack whose variety (post-punk, new wave, art rock, early jazz, opera) thoughtfully adapts to each situation, this utterly artistic slow-burner embraces a strangely calm yet tense atmosphere throughout.
Crafting a poignant story centered in an ambitious 24-year-old film student whose first love is marred by deception, secrecy, affliction, and addiction, Hogg captivates our senses and stirs our souls. She subtlety dissects this relationship between Julie (newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, the real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton, was not given the script and was asked to improvise instead), an aspiring filmmaker in the quest for authenticity and self-expression, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a secretive, well-traveled gentleman who borrows money from her on a day-to-day basis while frequently dodging any question about his affairs. This cordial, if snobbish junkie seems to love her, but he struggles with addiction, ultimately hitting the bottom and exposing his true self to the point of stealing Julie’s jewelry and pretending it was a robbery. He also lets one of his dealers in the apartment on one occasion. This man is never aggressive, though. By the contrary, he is always affectionate toward her, even when desperate for money. Julie refuses to give up on him and her financial predicament is usually solved with the help of her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton).
The brilliant actors are used expertly, almost in an enigmatic way, conveying all the characters’ pain in those soul-freezing moments where the tough shock of reality feels like a faint, distant dream.
Extremely impactful, both emotionally and visually, the lushly chronicled The Souvenir is already dubbed as one of the best films of the year. Despite achingly cruel, it’s never uncomfortable to watch, and I can’t wait for its sequel, which will feature, once more, mother Swinton and daughter Byrne resuming their respective roles.