The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.
If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.
In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.
It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.
* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.