The Souvenir ★★★★½

[95/100]

One of the most effective motifs in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir is the closing and opening of the lift doors to protagonist Julie's apartment. Every time the doors open, we seem to get a better understanding of her current position in life: her mental and physical state, the strength of her relationship and the scope of her artistic outlook. The framing of this motif morphs throughout the film, as does Julie's situation. There is never consistent improvement in her life but there is never a constant deterioration either. Instead, we are presented with a series of vignettes (often temporally ambiguous) that show varying points in Julie's time at film school, often focusing deeply on her tumultuous relationship with Anthony, an upper-class man who works as the Foreign Office. The characters feel real and the unconventional structure allows for the dynamics to remain as naturalistic as possible.

Julie is in the process of making a film about a sixteen-year-old boy who lives in Sunderland. She repeatedly notes that the boy has an obsession with his mother, who is nearing death, and wishes to use this dynamic as a metaphor for the state of his home town. She pitches this vision throughout the film but often fails to properly articulate it to those around her. As passionate as she seems about the idea, she is unable to translate that into the confidence of a pitch.

Joanna Hogg occasionally shows us that Julie is not alone in her lack of confidence. Other students at the film school complain about their frustration in their inability to define their own artistic identity and other students can be overheard debating what their identity should be. Of course, this is a very privileged issue and Hogg quickly brings up the class privilege of Julie very early on in the film. There is a short debate about the idea of privilege in the film and whether those with privilege should have to acknowledge that. I would have liked to have seen this touched on a little further but this isn't really the film's main focus. Joanna Hogg uses Julie partially as a reflection of her own life but also as a portrayal of any new artist struggling with the formation of their 'voice'.

By focusing on Julie, though, we get a deeper insight into the personal reasons for this lack of a voice. It's hard to ignore Julie's gender as one of these reasons, constantly cut-off and occasionally antagonised by the male presences around her. The very first conversation she has with Anthony about her film shows him repeatedly questioning the nature of her film: she wants to portray her interpretation of reality but Anthony seems committed to this idea of realism, questioning if she isn't just really making a documentary. It's an interesting idea but it points to a repeated occurrence throughout the film, where her vision becomes compromised by the theories of male presences around her (she is at one point asked why she doesn't do an experience closer to home - her gaze is being restricted.)

This idea of blurring the lines between reality and the filmic world is also a common idea throughout the film. The cinematography often switches from digital to film, often at key pivotal moments. At one point, when Anthony departs from the apartment, the camera switches to 16mm film. He seems to become less real at this moment, a sight that the camera beholds rather than the human eye. Of course, he isn't real but as this film bases itself on Hogg's own experiences, he may make up fragments of Hogg's own experiences. He exists but only in Hogg's vision. This questioning of realism often goes hand-in-hand with autobiographical art: these people are real to some degree but at what point do they lose their realism and become simply part of the art being viewed?

Anthony as a character and his relationship with Julie is also fascinating. The relationship is a toxic one. Julie, despite having to repeatedly borrow money from her mother, lends Anthony money every time he goes out. Anthony undermines much of what Julie says. In arguments, regardless of who was in the wrong at the beginning, Julie is the one apologising. Even outside of this relationship, she seems to apologise endlessly for things that obviously aren't her fault. When she finds a stranger in her home, she sensibly asks him to leave but apologises between each insistence. Her confidence is obviously harmed by Anthony's condescending `behaviour. This seems to amalgamate with her lack of identity also, with Anthony prescribing her identity for her, calling her 'lost' and making a comment written for her pitch seem like something it is not. He has control over her.

The performances in this dynamic are pretty stellar. Honor Swinton Byrne is a real talent who I hope to see more of in the future and the whole film gets a nice extra dynamic with the role of her real-life mother Tilda Swinton who also does an excellent job. Richard Ayoade pops up for one scene and is absolutely impeccable as Patrick, a film director who can seem pretentious on the surface and rather ignorant of personal boundaries but his character, despite only being in the film for one scene, is a little more complex than that, continuing the film's interrogation of the very foundations of filmmaking. I'm ever so slightly less convinced by Tom Burke's performance, particularly as the relationship develops more in the second half of the film as secrets are revealed but it's still a performance that clearly allows us to see the toxicity of the relationship presented.

The Souvenir is immaculately directed by Joanna Hogg, who has a real eye for imagery and is perfect at intercutting between the digital and 16mm footage throughout the narrative. She understands when to rely on the power of the talented actors she has at her disposal and when to use the visuals to do the brunt of the storytelling. The result is an intimate and very personal narrative that highlights the impact of this type of toxic relationship. But there is clear hope in the light. Even in the darkest of times, Julie has those around her to comfort her. And, in the closing moments of the narrative, we get a greater understanding of how this experience may have strengthened her own personal sense of identity. The final shot, which is absolutely marvellous and one of my favourites of the year, brings back that aforementioned door motif. Now, however, Julie's artistic gaze seems endless and she is no longer limited in her gaze. Through her life experiences, her artistic potential seems limitless. The world has become her canvas.