The Souvenir (2019)
Written & Directed by Joanna Hogg
She meets him during a party. He works for the foreign office, is older, and exudes that overwhelming sense of mystery and sophistication. They stumble through the first steps of a thing they haven’t entirely defined yet. She’s caught up in developing her first feature film, a story about a declining English city. He’s always bounding about for work. Then his secret comes out, divulged by a dinner guest and every single thing in her life goes spiraling. This is a semi-autobiographical film from Joanna Hogg which follows the character of Julie in the early 1980s as she sinks into the quicksand of a destructive relationship.
The title is a reference to a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard which is featured when the film’s couple visits an art museum. The title piece of art shows a young woman carving something into the trunk of a tree, presumably the name of her lover whom she’s just received a letter from. Fragonard was part of the Rococo art movement, a style of art that was characterized by overly elaborate and romantic depictions, with ornate flourishes abounding. The painting presumes a hopeful, empowered mindset to the young woman while her love is likely abroad due to war. The mindset here is one that doesn’t take into account the perilous mortality her man is up against. It becomes clear how the tone of this painting is where Julie’s mind wanders early in the relationship and how she returns here by the movie’s finale.
It will be evident to the audience that Julie and Anthony’s relationship is not off on the right foot, primarily due to his softly condescending tone when he goes over the pre-production Julie is writing and putting together for her film. He asks the sort of questions someone addresses when they don’t actually have an interesting in helping a person see their project through. His comments are intended to cause doubt and make Julie squirm. There’s never violent outbursts or overt physical abuse, not even shouting or name-calling. This is the kind of insidious toxicity that swirls about Julie and Anthony. Julie, in her mid-twenties, wants to feel mature and bohemian, in a relationship with an older worldly man but she has picked someone totally wrong for her.
We get clues early on that Julie has difficulty confronting people when she talks to a friend about struggling to have a conversation with her roommate about his girlfriend practically living their apartment. So, when Anthony’s problems and issues are revealed (while he is out of the room), Julie keeps her concerns internal until everything is so ugly and out on the table that she has to do something. That something becomes a series of stumbling blocks that ultimately lead to Julie growing a greater strength but still feeling grief and pain from how everything fell apart.
Throughout the film, Julie has discussions with fellow students and her film school professors about making movies. These talks become a meta-textual commentary on Joanna Hogg’s own retelling about time in her life. A brief discussion of Psycho focused on how Hitchcock withholds details resulting in fragments that imply what we don’t see ends up being valid for how the relationship between Julia and Anthony develops. We see their courtship in pieces, the audience is expected to understand this shorthand and fill in those details. There’s talk of how film automatically filters reality into a biased portrayal, and we have to wonder what this tragic relationship would like if we didn’t see it from Julia’s perspective.
Hogg has recently announced she has plans to make a sequel featuring the same cast and I expect this will not be directly about the events of this film, but another fictionalized take on an incident from her younger days. I am looking forward to it and hope it is the sort of film that lingers with you a long time after like The Souvenir.
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