REVIEW: The Souvenir (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24 / Curzon Artificial Eye

The following is a short review of The Souvenir — Directed by Joanna Hogg.

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a semi-autobiographical film about a young and posh film student’s romantic relationship with Anthony, a seemingly both successful and self-important somewhat older man. In her first major film role, Honor Swinton Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who is also in the film, and playwright John Byrne) plays Julie, the aforementioned aspiring filmmaker, whereas Tom Burke (Only God Forgives) plays Anthony, whose addiction threatens to tear their relationship apart. It is one of the most critically acclaimed independent films of the year. However, I think that Joanna Hogg’s coming-of-age film about toxic relationships, artistic growth, and privilege is disappointingly dull and uninvolving.

For some unknown reason, many visionary filmmakers have dedicated the last few years of this decade to tell these deeply personal stories. Just like both Alfonso Cuarón did with Roma and Pedro Almodóvar did with Dolor y Gloria, Joanna Hogg tells an intimate story on the big screen with The Souvenir. Though I greatly appreciated both Cuarón and Almodóvar’s latest films, Joanna Hogg’s very personal film did not work as well on me as the two aforementioned Spanish-language films did. If general audiences thought Cuarón and Almodóvar’s films were overpraised (which, by the way, I don’t think they were), then the virtually inaccessible The Souvenir certainly won’t win them over either.

There are definitely things to admire about Joanna Hogg’s otherwise frustratingly uninvolving film. For one, I think that the central performances are both quite strong. The most interesting — and arguably the best — thing about the film is easily the realism that Hogg captures with the two leading actors and their performances. Tom Burke, who I had never before seen in such a sizable role, impressed me, and so did newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne. I think they carry their characters really well, and, together with the writer-director, they make the central relationship, their characters, and the arguments feel realistic. However, I do think that Swinton Byrne’s character is much too passive, and the film is difficult to let yourself be absorbed by because of that passivity. I think that the film captures empty spaces elegantly, and I think that some of its shots are really powerful. I think one of the best shots in the film is found in Anthony’s introductory scene, which presents his self-importantness really well through the way he sits and is framed. He almost gives the camera a cold shoulder, in a sense.

But the passivity of the main character and the film’s overall visual style makes it difficult to engage with. The main character’s innermost thoughts are frustratingly kept at a distance, and it feels like you are on the outside looking in far too much for the film to succeed as anything other than an undeniably personal experiment. I had expected to appreciate this film much more than I ultimately did. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is an arthouse favorite that will not be accessible to most modern audiences. I am fascinated by this film, and I do admire a number of things about it, but I cannot recommend it.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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