Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
I can’t recall a film where I just as fascinated by the “Emergency Exit, Alarm Will Sound” sign on the door below the screen as I was by what was on screen. Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir,” based on a difficult relationship she had in film school during the 1980s is an infuriating sit. She cast her friend Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, who has no real acting experience and instructed her to improvise nearly every scene. Experimental for the filmmaker, excruciating for the viewer. The single-camera use in every scene makes an already stagnant film uninviting at best. Abrasive editing is used to mask scenes where improvisation goes south. The lack of musical score makes every scene feel like real time, dragging this out for an unbearable two-hours. The bleak storyline gradually gets worse, but it’s not the despair in the subject matter, it’s the loss of empathy we feel for the main character that is the biggest downer.
Surrounded by wealth and privilege, Julie (Byrne) has a vision for her first feature film at film school. She visualizes the story of a poor boy, terrified about losing his mother. Her own mother Rosalind (Swinton) and father are encouraging and supportive. Julie meets Anthony (Burke), an older man who works at the Foreign Office, preventing the country from local and foreign terrorist attacks. Their gradual friendship evolves into something romantic and soon they begin living together. It’s only later that Anthony’s “habitual heroin use” is revealed. How does it work between you, Julie is asked. Over time Anthony pushes the boundaries of their relationship, which Julie continually allows, disrupting her focus on film and her relationships with friends and family.
"The Souvenir" does not have to be this boring. Hogg is aiming for something that’s not welcoming to the viewer.
The only message I could derive from this film is that behind every ambitious woman is a man, trying to sabotage her success. Hogg’s screenplay based on her own experience, which is chilling to think anyone could be as naïve as Julie is portrayed in the film. Hogg obviously didn’t stay that naive. You don’t have to like the film to respect the obstacles she overcame, as explained in the film. Byrne’s performance resembles a trifecta of familiar actresses. Her pale screen and innocent expressions are reminiscent of Keira Knightley’s early work, although the “Pride & Prejudice” star has never taken a role this whimpering or indecisive. Byrne’s vocal delivery is more like Charlotte Gainsbourg, almost every line of dialogue spoken in a soft whimper. There are also flashes of Rebecca Hall in her performance, mostly in the one or two moments Julie confronts Anthony.
“The Souvenir” does not have to be this boring. Hogg is aiming for something that’s not welcoming to the viewer. Maybe it’s artistic; that’s debatable. Maybe all the quiet scenes and the grey tones help evoke a sense of her life in the 1980s, but it’s extremely difficult for an audience to find their way into these characters. By the end, I just wanted Julie to push Anthony out a window. Either Hogg doesn’t help the viewer understand the connection between the two well enough, or the style used here becomes a challenge to the audience and we are never invited into the story to get in there and care. In the scene where Julie and Anthony first interact, it’s set up as if she is auditioning for his approval or money for her project. Then all of a sudden they are in a relationship. After “The Dead Don’t Die” and now this, Swinton’s inclusion on a project can no longer guarantee it’s quality.
One of 2019’s most agonizing film experiences from the viewer standpoint.