Sitting amongst ellow critics, students, and volunteers at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival, my screening of The Souvenir was an utmost uncomfortable experience. All around me there were people not only engrossed by the sophisticated, decadent flair conveyed by the film – which undoubtedly must be commended – but also captivated by the supposedly emotional and tormented love story at the centre. Sadly, no one else seemed to be troubled by how poorly the portrait of the artist as a young woman was in fact represented.
It reads everywhere that The Souvenir is an autobiography of sorts from director Joanna Hogg. She extensively used materials from the time she was a film student and fed Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays her alter-ego on screen, with excerpts from her diaries. As a result, Byrne’s performance radiates with perfect naivete and authenticity, while overall the film unfolds as a cherished but problematic memory. Nestled in her flat in Knightsbridge, Julie lives a privileged life sheltered by her wealthy upbringing. As she attends film school, she sets her mind on a project which she believes can help her explore different social realities in the UK and step out of her bubble. One day she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an educated dandy working for the Foreign Office and lover of fancy restaurants and fine arts. The two begin a relationship which soon spirals down the toxic ladder as he can’t stop abusing drugs and exploiting Julie’s wealthy circumstances.
Before going to the press screening, I must confess I had never heard of Joanna Hogg and not seen any of her previous films. That is to say that prejudice is the only thing I didn’t bring with me into the screening room that day. Catching up on her filmography and doing a bit of research, it was no wonder finding out that investigating rich people, their relationships and problems, is Hogg’s chosen playground which can be as good as any. Debuting with Unrelated, a somewhat observational study of a middle-aged woman spending her summer in the Tuscan countryside – that plays like an homage to Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray and a straight precursor to Guadagnino’s Call me by your name. Hogg then established herself as an artist keen on exploring privileged people with a singular approach. Dedicated to dissecting family dramas, it was only a matter of time before she chose to direct her lens at herself and lay bare her own difficult formative years as a young woman.
As much as I left prejudice at the door, I had far too many expectations for what The Souvenir could be. Growing up, inspiring and brilliant stories on how male artists overcame difficulties to eventually rise to fame and be unanimously acclaimed were literally everywhere, whereas women weren’t even thought of being capable of stepping outside the kitchen. So, browsing through the EIFF programme and spotting a film that seemed willing to take its time to tell the story of a female artist felt like a breakthrough and catapulted me into excitement. Obviously, I was expecting a love story, or at least the minimum quota of romantic involvement to spice up the plot, but wasn’t at all ready for such an oppressive and overshadowing relationship so thoroughly examined that almost no time is left to actually care about Julie’s creative process and personal development as an artist.
Anthony exudes confidence and never wastes an opportunity to remind Julie of her inexperience. He brings her expensive lingerie from his business trip to Paris and then expects her to wear it promptly so he can wander his gaze on her half-naked body, pleased that she did as he asked. He teases her for being jealous of other women who are only ranked in the man’s list of girlfriends based on some random sexual merit. He doesn’t apologise for having turned her apartment upside down and having stolen her jewelry to pay for a dose; rather, he sounds dismissive and somehow talks Julie into taking the blame on herself for not having been understanding enough. He appears to love her though, or, at least, this is what he keeps telling her but we’re never near the mark of a healthy relationship; not even at the very beginning of the film when he always looks dapper and shows her around high-end restaurants and art galleries. What we see instead is glimpses of a young woman who struggles with growing up and finding clarity and scope in her own creative ambitions.
For the sake of a toxic love, she never questions him but she’s often talked down so that even in the face of Anthony’s inability to quit heroine, she’s the one seeking help to help him in turn. There’s no denying that drug addiction is a nasty business and something which should require patience and support from the person closest to Anthony, but the menace of an abusive relationship where the woman feels compelled to be always forgiving because the poor man is lost and troubled looms in the distance. Although necessary, a wake-up moment never comes; so Julie is left floating in a sea of self-pity, artistically and emotionally drained, until fate comes to her rescue.
Despite all the artistic merits that The Souvenir so brilliantly puts on display – the grainy cinematography of David Raedeker that gives visual texture to long-gone memories and the contemplating, rigorous shots that frame the characters and give space-specific relevance to their turmoils – overlooking such flaws in the representation of the female artist is just unforgivable. No matter how ingenue Hogg herself might have been when trapped in the coils of her first love, The Souvenir should have had the moral stance of retracing those past events while stressing their impact on the malleable mind of the young Julie. Instead, as she flounders at the mercy of her inexperience and insecurities, Julie tries to gasp for air but repeatedly gives in, and there won’t be any masterfully crafted finale to make up for such a missed opportunity.
by Serena Scateni
Serena Scateni is a freelance film critic and writer based in Edinburgh. In the past, she’s been spotted piling up degrees from universities in both Italy and Scotland, claiming she did that as she loved research. A moment before embarking on a PhD, she stepped back and decided to put academia on hold for a while. Now she’s filling her days watching films, talking about films, and writing about them. She loves Japan but also East-Asian cinema as a whole. Bonus points to queer films and features directed by women. You can follow her on Twitter at @29s____