A film about film – Joanna Hogg takes us on a sentimental trip back to the 80s, telling a partly autobiographical story of Julie, an inexperienced filmmaker searching for a theme for her first picture and falling in love with a mysterious man.
What sounds like a coming of age story that many could relate to, quickly turns out to be unclear and self-referential. Perhaps this explains why the film was so widely acclaimed at independent film festivals, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but what may be relatable and touching to people from the film industry, seems rather dull to an ordinary filmgoer. The feature is essentially one two-hour-long chat: there are conversations at the table, discussions in the car, there is pillow talk and deep-meaningful-conversations at a party. However, to fully engage in these we would have to know the backstory of the main characters. Without it The Souvenir feels like an arbitrary collection of scenes and quotes from other films.
To be clear, the film does touch on complex issues – growing up and gaining independence from one’s family, drug addiction, being honest with oneself – but does so in a superficial manner, then wanders off to another topic without justifying characters’ actions. The fact that The Souvenir was shot without a script, only based on a short summary of Hogg’s memories, explains its unstructured nature.
What mainly adds depth to the protagonist is the relationship with her mother, who seems to hesitate between protecting Julie and giving her space for her own decisions. She was stunningly portrayed by Tilda Swinton, actual mother of Honor Swinton Byrne, who played Julie in a natural, charming way. Tom Burke also gave an interesting performance as Anthony, an enigmatic man, who slowly unfolds to show his toxic personality.
One of the biggest strengths of the film, in my opinion, was the camerawork. The story was filmed with attention to composition, while light and shadow give it an intimate atmosphere. The choice of soundtrack, together with blurry, grainy images definitely adds to the nostalgic feel.
There is something fascinating about how quiet and minimalistic this film is. Nevertheless, the story is too vague and personal to be truly engaging.