There’s no shortage of movies about toxic relationships. Some are good. Some are bad. And some present their stories with a unique blend of maturity and insight; they portray a relationship so raw, so honest, that it sticks with you for years to come. Punch-Drunk Love. Anomalisa. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And, today, The Souvenir; not a perfect movie, but a special one nonetheless.
When taken at face value, The Souvenir has a simple and, admittedly, familiar story. Honor Swinton Bryne stars as Julie, a naive young film student seemingly unable to stand up for herself. The movie chronicles her relationship with Anthony, an older man – a tad pretentious with a good, government job. What exactly he does is kept a mystery, though we know he works in the foreign office and that whatever he does, he feels it’s quite important.
Anthony spends much of the movie excusing bad behavior by blaming it on his work and lashing out at Julie for daring to call him out on it. So what if he stole her jewelry, or is constantly borrowing money, or goes out to get mysterious packages? It’s necessary to keep his country safe. Or his job safe. And it’s really not that big a deal anyway.
Everyone meets people like Anthony. People who never apologize, never take real responsibility for their actions. I’ve met people like this. I’m sure you have too. Of course, Anthony isn’t all bad. He’s supportive, he’s sweet, smart, progressive, and bold. It’s these positive traits, and there are many, and a delightful performance by Tom Burke, that makes the tragedy of the character so much more poignant.
Anthony suffers as the result of his own actions, but he’s not the only one. The movie opens on Julie’s passions – in the very first scene she delightfully relays her love of cinema, art, and a specific project that she dreams of pursuing. All of that gets pushed to the side as the relationship takes hold. Early in the movie, we see Julie living two separate lives: one in her home with Anthony, the other as a film student. As The Souvenir moves onward, the former dominates the latter, and even when we see Julie working on her movie, meeting with her professors, or speaking with her classmates, the effects of her relationship are front and center. Just as Julie’s life becomes engulfed by a troubled relationship, so too is the film; early scenes discuss the value of art, of authenticity, and the use of cinema to explore different kinds of lives. By the film’s end, these themes are nowhere to be found. This is the story of the relationship, first and foremost.
That might seem like a positive but, while to a certain extent it is, the movie suffers from a slight lack of narrative cohesion. A lot of time is spent discussing the nature of art and authenticity. Writer/director Joanna Hogg, who based the movie off her own experiences in film school, poses compelling questions about how authenticity is measured, and what kind of films are worth creating. But, by halfway through the plot, it’s all dropped. What’s worse, we never really get a sense of how these ideas tie into the rest of the movie.
There’s not much about this film that outright doesn’t work – but, sometimes it’s narrative structure backfires. The movie, for example, has the goal of intentionally disorienting the audience – scenes flow at a meandering pace, and, for most of the runtime, the audience is not clued in to how much time actually passes over the course of the film. It successfully produces the kind of feeling Hogg wants, but this presents its own issues. Without a sense of this timing, it’s hard to read how far along, and how close, Julie and Anthony’s relationship becomes. They don’t say, “I love you” until close to the end of the film, and they never talk about any kind of long term plan besides living together. Maybe this is intentional, but because of this, I had trouble figuring out why Julie was so committed to her relationship with Anthony, and why she’s so forgiving when she clearly knows he’s lying to her, even when he admits to extremely concerning behavior. The performances help alleviate these issues, but they can only go so far.
Still, Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, both elevate The Souvenir. Their performances much like the movie itself, are understated. There’s not a lot of screaming, of fighting, of crying. When there is, it rarely lasts for a full scene. The actors have to distinguish themselves without those big dramatic moments that the Academy covets.
To their credit they succeed. Burke portrays Anthony’s pretentiousness as a constant, but something that changes with the context. His sarcastic wit is charming when he’s cracking jokes about Julie taking up too much space in bed. Not so much when he’s admitting to stealing her jewelry. Throughout all of this though, he remains so calm, so still, so measured, that those rare moments in which he completely loses composure, when he breaks from his relaxed norm, are deeply upsetting. He’s matched by Honor Swinton Byrne, who brings a naivety to the role, one that’s so constant that, when it eventually breaks, her change is more distinguished. It helps that Hogg gives her actors space to breathe – there’s many longer takes, giving actors a time to truly consider their performance.
Hogg’s filmmaking mirrors the understated nature of the performances. The Souvenir relies on authenticity – it succeeds if it’s audience views it as being “real’. As such, there’s very limited use of music. Actors are called upon to support their performances by themselves, not to be propped up by an artificial stimulus of background music. The cinematography is simple up effective; the camera usually keeps still, only moving when absolutely necessary. Each shot communicates a considerable amount of information about the space and those occupying it – Hoggs maximizes these details in the shot. Even if the camera isn’t moving, there’s something interesting to look at.
It takes a lot of bravery to make a movie like this – something that’s intentionally slow and meandering, something that at times is meant to discomfort and disorient its audience. It serves the risk of alienating its audience. I’m sure that probably did alienate some audiences who didn’t know what kind of experience they were getting themselves into. But it’s worth seeing, not necessarily because it’s always enjoyable to watch, but because it has something important to convey, and it’s earned your attention.
The Souvenir is not a masterwork. It has issues. But, even if it’s not a perfect movie, it’s a very special one, one that you don’t see every day. And it’s one that’s certainly going to stick with me for a very long time to come.