'The Souvenir' Is A Piercing Portrait Of A Woman Learning To Become An Artist

May 21, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 7:45 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. At the recent Sundance Film Festival, the top prize in the world cinema dramatic competition went to "The Souvenir," written and directed by Joanna Hogg. The movie, which stars Honor Swinton Byrne as a London film student, is the first half of a projected two-part drama based on events from Hogg's life. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The English filmmaker Joanna Hogg is not as well-known in this country as she should be. Her previous movies, like "Unrelated" and "Archipelago" were moody chamber dramas notable for their incisive, often brutal observations of human behavior. But her new film, "The Souvenir," represents a decisive breakthrough. This is her first picture drawn directly from her own experience. And while it's as dramatically restrained as her earlier work, it also has a startling emotional directness. It's a personal memoir that opens up into a piercing and beautifully acted love story.

The movie takes place in London during the 1980s. Hogg's alter ego is Julie, a smart, soft-spoken 24-year-old film student, played by a captivating newcomer named Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of the actress Tilda Swinton. Julie is still learning her craft and figuring out what she wants to do with it. At first she plans to direct a grotty kitchen sink drama about a boy and his mother living in the port city of Sunderland.

It's not a familiar world for Julie, with her privileged upbringing and posh London apartment. Her desire to shed light on the lives of the less fortunate is nothing if not well-intentioned and spurred, in part, by the harsh deprivations of the Thatcher regime. But it also runs the risk of seeming both inauthentic and condescending. The question of who has the right to tell whose story is one that artists seem to be asking themselves a lot these days. And Hogg gently and sympathetically critiques her own youthful naivete in the matter.

She also reminds us of the challenges then, as well as now, facing a woman trying to make her mark in the predominantly male world of filmmaking. When Julie begins dating a slightly older foreign office employee named Anthony, played by Tom Burke, you might be tempted to write him off with his lofty questions and his air of worldly arrogance. In one scene, he asks Julie about her Sunderland film in a tone that seems skeptical at best.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUVENIR")

HONOR SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) It doesn't matter that they're not real people. I mean, I'm not trying to make a documentary. And you know, I'm making a feature...

TOM BURKE: (As Anthony) Now, are you sure?

SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) Yes, I am. I'm making a feature film.

BURKE: (As Anthony) You're not trying to document some received idea of life out there on the docks - the daily grind, huddled listening to the wireless.

SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) Well, I am. But I'm creating something new with it.

BURKE: (As Anthony) Well, good.

SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) So the material is real. Those people exist. But I am designing new ones to fit what I want to make.

BURKE: (As Anthony) Well, good. That sounds great.

CHANG: But there is more to Anthony than meets the eye. His scenes with Julie are marvelous little verbal duets, full of the tangents and ellipses you get in natural conversation. And the actors play every exchange with sly wit and extraordinary tenderness. You understand why Julie falls so hard for Anthony, even as it becomes clear that things will not end well. I'm reluctant to say more except to note that this might be one of the most convincing moment-by-moment depictions of a relationship in freefall I've ever seen. Julie, an artist still trying to find stories to tell, couldn't have imagined that her own story would be so full of drama and emotion.

"The Souvenir" is a heartbreaker, but not a tear-jerker. And Julie's love life is just one of many things that make her interesting. The movie pays close attention to her early experiences working on a film set and also her loving relationship with her mother, who's played with enormous grace by Tilda Swinton herself.

Hogg doesn't use a lot of close-ups, preferring to shoot her characters from a distance, showing you the spaces in which they live and work. She loves to fill the frame with telling details, from the stuffed animals on Julie's bed to the old-school editing machine she uses to cut her film. The care with which Hogg positions her actors' bodies in the frame can make you feel as though you're looking at a painting, which is hardly an accident.

"The Souvenir" shares its title with an artwork by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which shows a young woman, also named Julie, carving her lover's initials into a tree. The image is so lovely and idyllic, you wouldn't guess it was painted in 1778 with the French Revolution on the horizon.

In a similar way, Hogg's movie offers a deceptively calm portrait of an individual at a moment of great social unrest. Throughout the movie, Julie is disturbed by news of IRA bombings and other terrorist attacks taking place across London. Hogg doesn't dramatize these incidents directly, but she doesn't ignore them either. Julie's perspective, like her own, may be limited. But that doesn't preclude the possibility of empathy or the stirrings of conscience.

I can't wait to see where Hogg and Swinton Byrne take Julie in their upcoming sequel, but this first chapter works wonderfully on its own. "The Souvenir" is a portrait of a woman learning to become an artist made by a woman who has become a great one.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the civil war within the NRA and the investigation into the NRA's tax-exempt status that's now being conducted by the New York state attorney general. My guest will be New York Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.