In The Souvenir, Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, a young film student in London in the early 1980s. Though clearly wealthy – she lives with friends in a flat owned by her parents in posh Knightsbridge – Julie is determined to make a film set in the north-east of England, where the shipping industry has been decimated by the neoliberal revolution instigated by Margaret Thatcher. When The Souvenir begins, Julie has just returned from the north with a series of black-and-white photographs that she has taken of beleaguered industrial landscapes. They are grim, bleak, but also harshly beautiful. As written, and as played by Swinton Byrne, Julie is a timid and naive young woman, and it is easy to laugh at her gauche pretensions in wanting to make a film about working-class life, something she clearly has no direct experience of. But the situating of the photographs so early in the film is important. They indicate the artist has an eye, and a talent for observation.
At a student party, Julie meets Anthony, played by Tom Burke. He is only slightly older than she is, and of the same class, but has a worldliness and a self-possession that she lacks. Anthony claims to work for the Foreign Office and he is well travelled. There is a disquieting threat implicit in their initial courtship – he seems to be taking advantage of Julie’s innocence to challenge her convictions and undermine her confidence. We wonder if the film will play out as a cautionary tale about the damage of an unequal heterosexual relationship. And yes, that is one element of the intricate chamber piece that is The Souvenir. But in this fiercely intelligent film, many of our initial expectations will be undermined. Anthony is a prat, and he is arrogant, but his observations about art and film are often acute – and they will be important in Julie’s development as an artist. He is also a user of heroin and in pursuit of his addiction he will disappear from time to time from Julie’s life, and demand of her an emotional support that he can’t return. Yet this film doesn’t go in for simplistic condemnation. We understand why a young artist, and in particular why someone from a sheltered and cloistered world, would be attracted to this man. Julie’s fellow students are bright, supportive and collegial. But they are as young and callow as she is. Anthony offers Julie experiences and insights that can’t be taught at film school.
The title refers to a miniature by the Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which Anthony shows to Julie early in their relationship. The painting depicts a woman carving a lover’s initial into a tree, a way of physically marking the memory of their affair. The Souvenir is largely set in intimate interior spaces and composed of patient and formally assured long-takes. But from time to time the director, Joanna Hogg, cuts to a wintry tree-lined landscape and we hear readings from letters that teasingly suggest we may be hearing from an older and wiser Julie. The sudden cuts deliberately keep the viewer at a critical remove from the characters, echoing the conscious formal and narrative choices that force us to maintain an oblique distance from the story of the affair. Memory, Hogg is suggesting, can’t necessarily be trusted.
For Julie, the woman in the Fragonard painting strikes her as sad. For Anthony, she seems determined. This, of course, will find echoes with the trajectory of Julie’s story. That The Souvenir is autobiographical is clear: Hogg herself took the photographs we see at the beginning of the film, and she too was a student at a London film school in the early ’80s. Yet the film constantly undercuts notions of authenticity and direct authorial voice that are integral to biography. The period details are sharply defined in the choice of music, and in the direct references to the Northern Ireland conflict, but at moments Hogg deliberately startles us by using references about “privilege” and “own voice” that seem more culturally appropriate to our contemporary reality. This blurring of temporal and cultural space is daring, again always keeping us at an emotional remove from the story.
There’s a great risk, of course, in this deliberate eschewing of melodrama and narrative cohesion. But from her first feature film, 2007’s Unrelated, Hogg has impressed me as a startlingly astute and phenomenally talented artist. The Souvenir demands great patience but I think it is well worth it. If there isn’t the conventional pleasure of catharsis, or of the satisfying resolution of a three-act structure, an equivalent joy can be found in a film that assumes an engaged and critical viewer. Hogg has an astonishing ability to create space and movement even when shooting within cramped interiors. There’s an exhilarating and theatrical freedom in her mise en scène, and so we never experience her world as suffocating or claustrophobic. The editor is Helle le Fevre, who also worked on Hogg’s two previous films, Archipelago and Exhibition, and the editing is in perfect harmony with Hogg’s direction: formally consistent and also sharply intelligent in the choices made.
The film demands much from Swinton Byrne. Julie’s passivity, and her being so sheltered, is maddening. A more conventional film would have her take control earlier, and would have indulged us in having her stand up to Anthony with more intellectual and moral intensity. Julie’s apparent lack of agency is frustrating but I don’t think Hogg is interested in making a film about a woman’s empowerment – I think she’s chosen to explore what are the elements of memory and experience that feed into an artist’s maturity. Thankfully, Swinton Byrne captures the quality that animates the character’s photographs, that sense of always being the observer. Her performance is honest in its restraint and in its lack of ostentation. Burke has an equal command in his playing of Anthony. The filmmaker and the actor could have easily undermined the character, played this poor foolish rich boy for cruel laughs. Burke illuminates all of Anthony’s faults and selfishness but also the central tragedy of his life, which is not the drugs he takes but the fact he is a phenomenally smart man with no talent for anything. In that sense, Julie had the upper hand from the beginning.
The Souvenir ends with a long shot of Julie, as the doors of a cavernous sound stage slide open. Light enters the building and outside is the same winter landscape we have been returning to in elliptical cuts throughout the film. She has abandoned her story about a working-class boy and instead is finishing a film that shows the clear influence of the experimental English filmmaker Derek Jarman. Hogg worked with Jarman as a young director, as did Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s mother, who plays Julie’s mother – wonderfully – in The Souvenir. The last shot is melancholy, it is sad. But the film is also proving Anthony right. In her art, Julie is evincing the determination she is only now starting to develop in her personal life. Memory, whether the memory is individual or political or cultural, always shifts and is refracted through perspective. The Souvenir is a quiet and thoughtful film. I loved listening to its voice.
CINEMA Antenna Documentary Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Sydney, October 17-27
MULTIMEDIA Screen Space — Sue Ford
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 13
FESTIVAL OzAsia Festival 2019
Venues throughout Adelaide, October 17-November 3
MULTIMEDIA Polyphonic Social 2019
Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, October 18-19
VISUAL ART Primavera 2019: Young Australian Artists
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 9
VISUAL ART Empathy Swarm
QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, until October 27
THEATRE A Midnight Visit
House of Usher Funeral Services, Melbourne, until November 3
VISUAL ART Joanne Duffy
Rochfort Gallery, Sydney, October 16—December 8
CULTURE Hope Dies Last
Gertrude Contemporary and Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, until November 16
VISUAL ART Open Studio: Natalya Hughes
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until January 27
VISUAL ART Margaret Olley: A Generous Life
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until October 13
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Focal recall". Subscribe here.