Written and directed by Joanna Hogg
Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes
by Rosalie Kicks, Old Sport
“You’re inviting me to torture you.”
The character Anthony (Tom Burke) remarks this line to Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne aka Baby Tilda) somewhere about halfway through the movie. Honestly, I can’t recall the exact moment, however, the timing is not terribly important. When this line was said, though, I could not help but think that maybe I had invited the writer/director Joanna Hogg to torture me.
I spent the majority of this one-minute shy of two hours flick frustrated to the point of sighing audibly. There a few things that I have to make known so that you, the reader, understand the situation that I was in while watching this movie at the Sundance Film Festival. I am going to clear all myths right now. There is a condition known as “festival fog”. Festival fog is a disorder of watching too many films to the point of delusion and not being able to separate one from the next. To get all Matrix for a second - festival fog even makes it hard to separate the film world from the real world. On the day of The Souvenir viewing I had gotten up early (dawn) and this was my third film of the day, I was already seven films deep at the fest overall. By 4pm, things started getting a bit fuzzy, especially when you add in the mountain air and high altitude. The reason I say all this is because, it took me a while to come around on this film, but when I did, I realized that what I had watched was rather extraordinary.
It is one of those films where you feel like a fly on the wall, observing the lives of people and unsure whether it is appropriate to be there. Shot in a cinema verité style, in which the film relies heavily on improvisation, it often felt as if I was witnessing a real-life story play out in front of my eyes. It plays out more like a documentary than a narrative film. When I looked into the background of the story further, I learned that my sentiments actually held some validity.
The Souvenir is an autobiographical telling of director Joanna Hogg’s life while she was a film student during the 80s in London. During this time in her life she was in her mid-twenties and became involved with a problematic older man. The word “problematic” should not be taken lightly. When it comes to being a schmuck, this guy is the triple threat: user, liar, and thief. I honestly can’t come up with one redeeming quality about this guy, except for maybe his wardrobe. He wore really nice suits. The suits one comes to expect Cary Grant or Ray Milland to sport. Other than his fashion sense, I am not quite sure what Julie saw in him. Besides the occasional fashion tips, the only things she received from this guy were heartache and misery.
When it comes to her film work, Julie is smart, independent, and determined. This is shown during her time spent working on projects in and outside of school. On a side note, she is also an expert on the editing techniques used in Psycho’s shower scene which is YES! in my book. However, when it comes to her relationship with Anthony, she becomes a naïve pushover. From my own experience, relationships seem to have the power to turn us into babies. This especially was true during my younger Kicks years. When it comes to dealing with Anthony, Julie is nonsensical. It was bothersome to me how much she allowed this person to get away with and even after pondering this movie days after watching it, I still do not know why she was ever with him in the first place.
As much as I liked getting to know Julie, I got the impression that her experience in college was a lot different than mine. I was not able to ring my mum, anytime I ran out of money. I had a pretty rad apartment in the city, but I also had a job. I don’t recall that Julie ever worked – she did take a trip to Vienna though. Much of the story plays out like short vignettes and you have to use your logic to string it all together. I like that the director gives the audience the responsibility to piece the story together and interpret it as they see fit.
After watching the film, I read that Honor was not given the script prior to shooting. Instead, the director provided her with diaries, notes, past film projects, stories, and photographs that she made/wrote in her past. The rest of the cast was given the script and informed that Honor would be improvising her dialogue and the cast should react as best they could, keeping the story in mind.
I find this way of directing to be fascinating. It relies very heavily on your cast to be able to deliver a performance that comes off as realistic. Honor and Tom do such a wonderful job. I am still in awe that this was Honor’s first major acting role as the character of Julie is extremely complex. Of course, even with a minor role, Tilda Swinton as Julie’s mom (and real life mom to Honor) shines.
This movie was picked up by A24 – watch for it!