Joanna Hogg doesn’t make life easy on her audience.
Subtlety and layers of hidden context abound in her latest feature, “The Souvenir,” a semi-autobiographical drama she wrote and directed about a young film student’s destructive love affair with an older man set in the 1980s.
Audiences are shown bits of Julie and Anthony’s time together in a piecemeal, fragmented way that’s part slice of lice, part melodrama and unlike any romance film viewers have likely seen before.
“The Souvenir” plays out like a memory piece, following Julie down the rabbit hole of a relationship she’s unprepared to have consume her so deeply.
Honor Swinton Byrne is astonishing as the idyllic ingenue of privilege whose inexperience living in a middle-class world is overwhelmed by Anthony’s increasing presence in her life.
Byrne approaches the role with a genuine naivety that goes beyond the fact that “The Souvenir” is her first major on-screen performance. It’s often as if Julie is dipping her toes into the real world for the first time, scene by scene, growing and changing in subtle ways that even she fails to recognize.
Tom Burke gives Anthony a dismissive distance that evokes an impression of callousness warmed or at least charmed by Julie’s infatuation. Over the course of the film, Burke reveals Anthony’s darker eccentricities slowly and meticulously so as to remove the veil from the eyes of both Julie and the audience in such a way that reveals Anthony’s true self while keeping Julie’s heart in the palm of his hand.
“The Souvenir” is a portrait of an artist struggling to define herself based on a submissive relationship with a domineering personality. Whether that portrait is of Julie the character, Joanna the filmmaker or somewhere in between is the film’s greatest unanswerable question.
Some audiences will find “The Souvenir” inaccessibly distant and cold for a variety of reasons: the film languishes in minutia rather than advancing plot in a significant way, there’s always a hidden double meaning lying under the surface of every scene, many conversations are technical meta-commentary on Hogg making the film audiences are watching in real time.
Viewers have been conditioned to expect reliability from filmmakers on a narrative structure and other basic conceits of dialogue and character development that Hogg ignores here.
It feels impossible to fully determine on an initial viewing whether events in “The Souvenir” happen linearly, are spiraling downward in circles or mismatched across the timeline as if they are moments in a dream coming into focus at random.
The same can be said about the reality of “The Souvenir” in a much more compelling way.
The things that happen to Julie within the main structure of the film appear to coexist with Julie’s work filming a fictional world based on her experiences that’s also layered within Hogg’s semi-autobiographical screenplay.
Complex cinematography also plays a role here. Hogg layers her film with old photographs and Super-8 footage Hogg took in her youth that’s meant to represent Julie’s developing work.
Blended with director of photography David Raedeker’s work in both film and digital crafted to look like 16 mm film, “The Souvenir” has a constantly fluid, changing visual style that magnifies the haze of memory the film aspires.
Acute audiences will rightfully find themselves questioning each scene, wondering where things are going or, more to the point, where things might have been. It’s a rare and provoking concept to formulate a feature film around, incredibly meta and a way to accent mood and character over plot.
“The Souvenir” seems better suited for a major showing at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) rather than the Oscars as Hogg’s feature is likely to be a frontrunner for Outstanding British Film and the Rising Star award for Byrne.
A complex look at the power of infatuation, “The Souvenir” certainly earns its place among the year’s best films and multiple screenings can only enhance one’s understanding and appreciation for Hogg’s introspective work.