Joanna Hogg’s films are the antithesis of popcorn entertainment so if it’s not the antithesis of popcorn entertainment that you seek, you may be better off going elsewhere. Her latest, The Souvenir, is about a young woman finding herself and her own voice, and is semi-improvised and I know someone who hates her films — ‘like watching paint dry,’ I was told — but if this is so, I have never seen paint dry so enthrallingly. I was fascinated throughout, in fact.
This is her fourth film after Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), and it is her best, I think. (Although I will always have a very soft spot for Unrelated.) All of her films are somehow about people trapped by their own privilege — I am wondering if it’s worth thinking of her as the Ken Loach of posh people — and The Souvenir is no exception. However, this time out it is an autobiographical drama, based on a particular relationship she had with a particular man in her early twenties while still a film student. Set in London in the 1980s, Honor Swinton Byrne plays Hogg’s younger self, now called Julie. Julie lives in the Knightsbridge flat owned by her rich parents who are otherwise at their country pile in Norfolk. Her mother (played by Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s actual mother) sometimes visits and fusses about lamps. Julie knows she lives ‘in a bubble’ and is therefore planning on making a film about poverty in Sunderland. Julie is sincere and eager but still wears little cardigans as offset by brooches so may not be ready for poverty in Sunderland. This is Hogg asking: for an artist, what experiences are valid?
Now on to Anthony. Oh my God, Anthony. She meets Anthony (Tom Burke) at a party she holds at the flat. He wears pin-stripe suits and bow ties and may work at the Foreign Office. (He says he does but we’re never sure.) He is a decade older and a man of the world and he takes her to the Wallace Collection to see ‘The Souvenir’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Hogg has said she doesn’t know why he took her to see that painting, just that he did, and it lingered, just as it lingers for us now, and will always linger for us now. (Thanks for that, Joanna.)
Anthony moves in with Julie and Anthony wears an apron and cooks but Anthony is not all he seems as he has a raging heroin habit. He exploits Julie. He steals from her. He tortures her. Leave him, you wish to say to her, but on the other hand you understand why she doesn’t. Her world is too hermetically sealed otherwise. And she values his critical sensibility, even if she allows herself to be intimidated by it. ‘You have to make a connection between your experience and the experience you are trying to film,’ he tells her. She drops Sunderland.
The film is episodic. There’s a sad trip to Venice. There are the men who try to tell her what her own film is about at film school. There’s her mother, who tries to protect her, but cannot. The talk is naturalistic and there is an awkward disconnectedness. Even when two characters are in the same space they are somehow kept apart. I have made it seem action-packed, but it isn’t. Julie unfolds slowly, as does the film, and sometimes conversations start, stutter, stall, go nowhere. But the leads are both sensational and it’s not paint drying, whatever anyone may say. As it happens, I had my living room painted last autumn, and watched it dry. And it was nothing like this. At all.