****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to ever suffer through this meandering art house pretender.
The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg, is the story of Julie, a film school student who falls into a relationship with Anthony, a mysterious older man. The film stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie and Tom Burke as Anthony, with a supporting turn from Tilda Swinton.
Joanna Hogg (no relation to Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg or Sir Denis Eton-Hogg of This is Spinal Tap) is a British filmmaker who in the last decade has made a bunch of fringe art house films that have occasionally garnered some mild critical attention. I have never seen any of Ms. Hogg’s previous work, and after seeing The Souvenir, I don’t feel obliged to.
The Souvenir is a narcissistically indulgent art house poseur of a film that has pretensions of profundity but ultimately is nothing more than an exercise in cinematic futility and philosophical frivolity.
Ms. Hogg’s film school training is noticeable as she is proficient in the technical aspects of filmmaking, some of her shots of wonderfully framed for example, but she is totally devoid of even the most minute storytelling or character developing instincts. The Souvenir’s characters, relationships and narrative are so poorly constructed the film has no foundation upon which to build any sort of dramatic momentum.
The characters have absolutely no arcs to them at all, they start in one place and end in exactly the same place. No one goes anywhere or learns anything…things just happen and time goes by and then, mercifully, the movie is over. The movie is so devoid of any dramatic pace or rhythm, the film’s meandering two hour run time drags on and on. It seems Ms. Hogg’s greatest skill as a filmmaker is the ability to make two hours feel like eight.
The film is a semi-autobiographical story about a relationship Ms. Hogg was in during her film school days, and it shows. Ms. Hogg takes for granted the character’s motivations and their connections because she has lived them, but she never does the work of conveying those things to the audience, so we are left with no connection to anything or anyone on the screen.
The film not only has no answers, it has no questions, but instead spins its wheels in the muck and mire of its own emptiness. Nothing makes sense, nothing means anything, and nothing matters. I sat watching this film wondering why on earth Julie would spend time with this dullard and dope of a man Anthony who brings nothing to the table…nothing…he is not charming, smart, funny, good-looking or charismatic.
Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) is a pleasant screen presence as Julie but is not developed enough as an actress to be able to carry a film like this which, if made correctly, would need a complex performance at its center. Byrne may well grow and mature into a more formidable actress, but for now her charm and quirky, but undeniable, beauty can only carry her so far and do not make up for her lack of skill. That said, I do look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
Tom Burke as Anthony does as well as he can with the very little he is given. Anthony is a vacuous and vacant character, a cardboard cutout from Ms. Hogg’s perspective on her own history. Burke gives Anthony a distinct and precise manner but cannot give him any specific intentions because the character has none.
Tilda Swinton plays a small role as Julie’s mother and brings a noticeable amount of dramatic heft that is missing from the rest of the cast. Tilda Swinton elevates the proceedings a great deal but is not a miracle worker.
Seeing this film made me remember being in a play a few years ago. In the play I played a date rapist and had to simulate a rape on stage. My scene partner, who is one of the loveliest people I know, was also the writer and star of the production and she had written the play about her own personal experience. Obviously, rehearsing this scene was difficult because of the emotional minefield we were walking through. In one rehearsal I improvised by changing one small word in a line, and my scene partner/writer and her director friend got very upset. They said that I shouldn’t change the word, and when I told them that the way I changed it actually conveyed the emotional sentiments more clearly and with much more dramatic impact, they countered by saying with the utmost sincerity and earnesty, “but that isn’t what he said in real life”. Needless to say, I bit my tongue, I am not going to argue with that statement in that situation. But the reality was and is that it doesn’t matter how it happened “in real life”…what matters is how you convey it to the audience and how they perceive it. How does the audience receive and process the information you are giving them? By sticking to strictly “what really happened”, the essence of that rape scene, and its horror and emotional power, were diluted due to a sort of emotional narcissism more akin to psychotherapy than drama/art/entertainment. While that may benefit the actress/writer, it didn’t benefit the story or the characters and therefore the audience.
It struck me watching The Souvenir that Ms. Hogg seemed to be re-litigating an old relationship and using cinema as the vehicle for her therapy. While that may be good for her, that is not so good for us because her therapy is not dramatically sound, artistically worthy or even remotely compelling or engaging.
After seeing the film I thought to myself that, like her young star Honor Swinton Byrne, Ms. Hogg may well grow to be a formidable filmmaker as she matures and grows as an artist. Due to the film’s rather immature philosophical perspective and myopic artistic vision I assumed Ms. Hogg was a young woman in her twenties who was basically still trying to figure out who she is as an artist. Then I looked Ms. Hogg up and was dismayed to find that she is a 60 year old woman. If she doesn’t know who she is as an artist and a person or what she is doing as a director by now, she never will.
In conclusion, The Souvenir is a piece of art house fool’s gold that sells itself as a sort of artistic journey but is neither a piece of art nor does it go anywhere. Ultimately, the film is a frustrating, dare I say irritating, cinematic experience, and for this reason I contend that no one ever needs to see this film at any time or any place for any reason.