The Souvenir ★½

THE SOUVENIR (Joanna Hogg, Britain, 2019) 3

There was an episode of THE JEFFERSONS where George has to give a eulogy for a despicable store manager named Wendell. When Louise helps George write by asking what kind of person Wendell was, George answered “he cheated on his wife.” “Well,” Louise said, “you just have to find a way to say that in a nice way. Like ‘he loved everybody’.” By the time the eulogy was written, Wendell was “outspoken” (a loudmouth), “knowledgeable” (a know-it-all) and more.

Reading positive reviews here of THE SOUVENIR, I felt like I was listening to George’s eulogy. Phrases like “muted conversations between a group of friends that is more random chatter than actual dialogue”; “a box full of darkness”; “unfolds with the random flow of remembrance, hopping from one flashbulb memory to another with little regard for pace or structure”; “almost entirely eschew exposition, requiring more work from the audience.” I’m pretty much nodding along with the melody, albeit with different lyrics.

Or in non-eulogy terms, THE SOUVENIR is a turgid and disconnected mess, a set of random moments that Hogg doesn’t bother to connect and constantly underplays, all set around a protagonist too recessive to care about. It’s as if Hogg is deliberately walking on eggshells, seeing emotional involvement or dramatic emphasis as vulgar. It’s a junkie movie with no thrills or scares, a film-school movie with no self-aware jokes, and a movie where there’s political discussion of the treatment of IRA prisoners and in which a bomb later goes off but we only hear it offscreen and never get any sense of ... the bombing.

I didn’t know, but was not surprised to learn, that THE SOUVENIR is kinda autobiographicalish, which explains a lot. This kind of recessive collection of random moments without exposition might have emotional resonance if you know every moment from the inside out. From the outside in, it’s tedious but makes enough sense to become positively aggravating, and by the hour mark I couldn’t wait for it to end.