'The Souvenir': Suffering Yields Reinvention For a Young Artist in Joanna Hogg’s Exquisitely Personal Drama [Sundance Review]

Survived pain arises as both a vehicle for growth and catalyst for the revaluation of one’s impetus in Joanna Hogg’s introspectively awe-inspiring stroke of virtuosity “The Souvenir,” an artifact of semi-autobiographical memory through which the director thoughtfully analyzes a toxic bond with an enigmatic lover.

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Hogg, an auteur orchestrating the reconstruction of a harrowing episode partially from her past, correlates such romantic tragedy with the gestation of her artistic sensibilities. Intellectual evolution is not presented entirely as a consequence of heartbreak, but as the final stage in a transformative experience with highlights and glitches. Storytelling mastery is unassumingly flaunted to get across the film’s heady notions.

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Purposely seeking a departure from her posh worldview, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne)— functioning as Hogg’s fictional incarnation—is a film student in 1980s England preparing to research, write, finance, and direct a feature project set among the dilapidated shipyards in the town of Sunderland with a poverty-stricken mother and son as protagonists. It’s her belief that abandoning her privileged reality, even if only in simulation, will make for a notable calling card.

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Before that misguided plan gains momentum, however, a collision occurs between Julie and Anthony (Tom Burke), a debonair gentleman that pokes holes at her infirm convictions. Their casual meeting ignites a ravenous flame that only grows more implacable with added intimacy. Without hard evidence, Anthony claims to be involved in foreign affairs and declares himself a supporter of righteous causes. Whether charmer or charlatan, he gains admittance to her vulnerability by way of condescendence concealed as guidance.

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Intoxicated by his airs of grandeur, the novice filmmaker lets him into her home, first as platonic adviser then as a secret boyfriend. All the while his nonchalant entitlement becomes increasingly blatant. Not only does he exasperate her financial instability subsidized by her parents, but soon exposes her to far more treacherous behaviors.

Accentuating her direct parallels with the tormented creator in “The Souvenir,” Hogg painstakingly fabricated a near-exact carbon copy of her former abode inside a Royal Air Force aircraft hangar. The period-specific vistas observed outside Julie’s windows were projected from 35mm images Hogg’s captured when she was around the character’s age. Yet, for all the artificiality invested in its construction, the spaces ring lived-in and charged with personal history.

Inside this delicate apparatus, Hogg’s cinematographer David Raedeker had the enthrallingly daunting assignment of manipulating light with reach a calculated atmosphere. For most of the turbulent first two acts, Julie and Anthony’s interactions unfold under a perpetually overcast sky. Showered in soft light, their troubles almost feel quaint. It’s only when a ray of hope sneaks into their lives after much hurt, that the sun shines slightly brighter. Natural sunlight comes into the picture only once and causes a heavy impact once she can finally breathe in truth.

Raedeker avidly plays with mirrors as perfect frames for the lovers’ duplicitous encounters, and makes lavish use of locations brimming with fine art. Indeed, there is a melancholic elegance to “The Souvenir” as a whole, one that plunges into divine heights during an impromptu trip to Venice where the on-screen beauty is almost otherworldly. The film’s subtle visual aesthetic only changes drastically when we are granted a peek behind the curtain as Julie is shown directing scenes for an academic task: initially insecure and resolute a second time around.

Having sung the praises of its formidable crafts, let’s turn to the picture’s most stellar revelation, Honor Swinton-Byrne, a newcomer performing opposite her Oscar-winning mum Tilda Swinton—who lends her habitual excellence to the part of Julie’s protective mother.

Fluctuating from naïve ebullience to crippling self-doubt with disheartening flares of disappointment and agony, Swinton-Byrne is an emotive shifter enduring the hardship of loving someone on the verge of self-destruction while pursuing a passion-driven career. To say she blows away all expectations or preconceptions of what her turn as Julie can be is an understatement. Awards should flow her away if understated interpretations were better appreciated for their complexity.

Burke (“Only God Forgives”) is not far behind as sophisticated brute wielding words as daggers savagely perforating the woman by his side, and whose identity is so obscured by its own entanglement he doesn’t truly know where he stands. Anthony’s malice towards Julie is part symptom of something broken and part unfiltered arrogance, but wounding all the same. Like all good deceivers, Burke’s Anthony is capable of tenderness, perhaps the sincere kind, but never long-lasting enough to account for the despair imposed on Julie.

Deemed as a director intrigued by upper-crust tribulations based on her previous efforts (“Archipelago,Exhibition”), Hogg doesn’t completely deviate from that assumption with her latest, but layers it with humanity so nuanced the lead’s affluent background is less a distancing element and more a factor that sums credibility to her fragile position. Julie is part of a social bubble that shielded her from harshness her entire existence, but in the wake of the tragic love affair, a transcendent change finally occurred. Suffering, for better or worse, yields reinvention for the young artist in this exquisitely personal drama.

Engraved more like a superficial scar, visible but now painless, the memory of Julie’s time as a victim of a loved one’s vices remains permanent but usable as a life lesson. In that sense, Julie operates alongside the “The Souvenir’s” motif, an 18th-century painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, in which an ostentatiously clad damsel leaves a message on a tree, probably for future, tangible reference of something significant. Hogg, in turn, has offered her own keepsake in movie form, just as indelible and rich. [A]

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