“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”
– Roger Ebert
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that more closely fits the criteria given in this Ebert quote than The Souvenir. Joanna Hogg’s new semi-autobiographical romantic drama charts the peaks and valleys of Julie and Anthony’s affair: a young, bright but shy film student and a slightly older man with some serious demons. To use Ebert’s terminology, the film provides a window into Julie’s psyche. There are several times during the course of the film when you’ll find yourself asking why she would stay with him. But by the end, the film provides a resounding resolution to this question. This is not done so much with textual evidence, but through Hogg’s direction. This could have been a more conventional type of romantic film and it would have been pretty good. The execution is what takes the cake here, though – the film’s confident and bold fluctuations in linear structure give it an intellectual and emotional edge while also saying a great deal about the concept of cinema as heightened reality.
Honor Swinton Byrne quietly dazzles as Julie, who first encounters Anthony at a party full of young artists. They seem to have a natural intellectual feel for one another, although Anthony challenges her quite often on her objectives in her work. As Anthony, Tom Burke is enigmatically sexy, which the role undeniably calls for. His courtship of her reminded me of the excellent Peter Strickland film The Duke of Burgundy, which is all about lovers testing and teasing each other in increasingly arch fashion. There’s a particularly entertaining, if muted sequence in a very elegant lounge where Anthony distracts Julie from asking about his work with yet another slightly arcane dialectic on the purpose of cinema as an art form.
Their relationship rises and falls as Anthony reveals more information about himself. Notwithstanding his drug habit, you can totally understand why Julie finds him so maddeningly wonderful. She feels seen by him in ways no one else truly sees her. In many ways, their verbal jabs at one another are their way of communicating affection. Her keeping pace with him conversationally and his being unpredictable add up to a strange, yet often endearing foreplay. To the outside world, it may seem like an abstruse love, but as we sit inside Julie’s mind, their language becomes second nature.
As the weight of this film’s achievement hits, it can seem more than a little like a purely intellectual exercise, rather than an emotional memoir. Others are free to express that opinion, but for me, The Souvenir did indeed pack a punch. Its unpredictability makes it so absorbing that it truly starts to feel like real life – a series of events and memories that prey on the mind until every sigh has meaning.