The Souvenir immediately grounds us in a time and place. Black and white images of a working-class port town are replaced by a beautiful — clearly expensive — apartment, luminously lit with soft, romantic edges. Our protagonist, filmmaking student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), enthusiastically talks to party guests about her plans to film in the working-class town we just saw. Her talk of “dying, decaying, rotting” things forms a clear contrast to her youth, beauty, and vitality.
But writer-director Joanna Hogg’s film never takes us beyond these initial facts about Julie — that she’s privileged, earnest, and ambitious. She’s full of grand ideas but lacking self-awareness, as indicated by her excitement at filming in a town full of hardship while she lives off her parents’ money in an expensive apartment. Beyond these surface character traits of Julie’s, however, it feels as though we’re always hovering at the introductory stage, wanting to know more about her: What does she think? What does she feel? This lack of interiority becomes frustrating when so much of the film revolves around Julie’s emotions, especially how she feels about other people.
These thoughts and feelings should become integral when Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an older, outwardly wealthy man who works for the Foreign Office. They begin a strange kind of courtship, with none of the usual milestones. When he asks her to visit his parents’ house for a weekend, it’s not clear how long they’ve been seeing each other or whether the relationship is romantic in nature. Soon after, he asks if he can stay at her place for a few days. We see them in bed, fully dressed, debating who took up too much room the night before. Clearly, at some point they had a conversation about where he would sleep before deciding on her bed — but why deny the audience this conversation, or the likely tension this would create? Soon after this, he goes to Paris for a while, and her response — “okay, see you soon” — suggests things are still platonic. Yet when he returns, he gifts her some black lingerie, which she puts on, and they have sex.
This pattern of withholding from the audience, of keeping conversations and reactions hidden, continues even after the relationship becomes more established. The film’s succession of brief scenes always begin and end abruptly, dropping us into something as dramatic as an argument or as small as the beginning of a car journey. Of course, this is how memories work, presenting themselves as fragments rather than complete scenes. Hogg has stated that the film is autobiographical, drawn from her own memories. But the film’s imitation of memory doesn’t help us empathise with Julie; rather, it keeps us at a distance from the characters, whisking us away into another scene just as we get close to understanding them.
Julie soon learns that Anthony is a heroin addict, after his friend tactlessly drops it into a conversation with her (a scene — no, movie — stealing turn by Richard Ayoade). Yet Julie doesn’t confront Anthony, and the film gives no sense of her feelings after this revelation, skipping forward two, three, four scenes as we’re still processing this new information. What soon becomes clear is that Anthony is emotionally abusive and manipulative. This is where the frustratingly fragmented editing style works brilliantly: just like Julie, we can’t pinpoint when his abuse begins, but it gradually dawns on us as his behaviour gets worse. Fleetingly, we see warning signs, but like the abuse victim, don’t realise quite how bad it is until we’re in deep.
This careful framing of an emotionally abusive relationship is the film’s strength, but the depiction of abuse is more convincing than the relationship. In order to understand why Julie endures Anthony’s treatment, we need to empathise with her attraction to him. However, the film’s cold distance keeps us from understanding the most important aspects of their relationship, like why she would love him. While there’s certainly chemistry in the sex scenes, too many other scenes beg the question of why they keep spending time together, as the relationship doesn’t appear particularly emotionally fulfilling. Trips to Europe, meals at fancy restaurants and visits to her parents’ estate are undertaken by both of them with coolness rather than excitement, as though they are going through the motions. This impression is, again, partly down to the briefness of the scenes, which maddeningly suggest that important moments and conversations must be taking place after the cut.
Visually, the film is lovely. David Raedeker’s cinematography renders everything pastel and dreamlike, and he cleverly frames his subjects. Julie is often dwarfed by surrounding architecture like doors and windows; on the first date with Anthony (or at least the first date of theirs that we see), she is framed by huge lampshades that render her small and meek. Later, she slowly opens the doors of a film studio’s warehouse, the camera’s position situating her as a tiny figure in the yawning gap. Like the fragmented editing, this allows us to understand Julie’s position in the relationship: powerless, adrift. But these visual choices aren’t enough of an insight into her psychology to feel satisfying, and Hogg’s direction ensures that we are always placed at arms-length from her autobiographical protagonist.
As a portrait of an emotionally abusive relationship, The Souvenir conjures painful empathy. But as a study of the woman at the centre of this relationship, its sustained distance leaves us wanting something deeper.
The Souvenir will be showing in Australian cinemas from 26 September.
Zoë Almeida Goodall is a researcher, writer and freelance editor living in Melbourne. She was a participant in the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival Critics Campus program. Currently, she is attempting to draw together her research interest in feminist social policy with her film criticism. Her work has been published in Cause a Cine and Screen Education; issue 94 of the latter is where you can find the analysis of marriage and masculinity in A Star is Born (2018) that you never knew you needed. Twitter: @zagoodall