Monday 19 June 2017

Factory-line pop: "Souvenir"

It would not be too great an overstatement to say that Isabelle Huppert has comprehensively owned the past twelve months: first came Things to Come, then Elle, then the Oscar nomination. Bavo Defurne's Souvenir - a melodrama in the oldest sense of the word - might be approached as the joker in this recent run of credits: it has the look of a project a performer undertakes knowing that everything will be laid on for her, and that all she need do is turn up, try on the costumes, submit to the camera's adoring gaze, and wait for her happy ending to come along. There's precisely one stretch here: this is the film in which Huppert sings - a development that might well be trumpeted in much the same way as 1930's Anna Christie was sold with the tagline "Garbo talks!". The bittersweet tone is set by an opening sequence that plunges us into what looks like the fizz of a champagne flute only to reveal a seltzer tablet as the source of the bubbles: after the success, the hangover. We find Huppert's Liliane engaged in nine-to-five drudgery in a pâté factory, applying the garnish to the Flemish equivalent of Christmas puddings. Her own cover is swiftly blown once a young co-worker, part-time pugilist Jean (Kevin Azaïs, from Les Combattants), twigs her secret identity. Liliane, it turns out, was formerly Laura - emphasis on the second syllable - sometime representative of France at the Eurovision Song Contest (where she lost to ABBA), now hiding out from the world following the dissolution of her marriage.

Now, we don't entirely buy that an urban sophisticate such as might be played by Isabelle Huppert might wind up in these reduced circumstances, nor that such a woman would have (or care) to spend her nights alone watching trashy quiz shows. If we are to accept Souvenir as a subtitled equivalent of The Wrestler - or a sister-film to the 2010 Depardieu vehicle The Singer, another showbiz comeback drama - Defurne might have been better off casting an actress who's slipped some way further off the movie radar: Isabelle Adjani, say, or Sophie Marceau. Again, though, we'd have been confronted with the improbability of an incredibly glamorous and desirable woman packing pâté in the middle of nowhere; it may well be that no-one could have made the narrative anything other than preposterous, and that Defurne is encouraging us to embrace that very preposterousness by putting Eurovision centre frame. No-one is likely to mistake Souvenir for Dardennes-like realism, certainly. Defurne's images - as in his early shorts, and the 2011 feature North Sea Texas - are polished to a rare, reflective sheen: the neatfreak in this director manifests in the precise clip of Azaïs's matinee-idol moustache, and recurring overhead shots of Liliane wiping down the surfaces at her workplace. The interior design, meanwhile, comes in a shade we must now call Almodóvar Red, rhyming - in one of several pleasingly absurd touches - an untouched lobster with the dress our heroine wriggles into for her big comeback. 

What finally elevates Souvenir into the realms of solid fun is the manner in which Defurne savours the pleasures of performance, thereby illustrating to us why the reclusive Liliane can't quite leave the persona of Laura behind: the camera doesn't so much linger over as hungrily devour the sight of Azaïs's toned flyweight striking bedroom poses for his lover while stripped to his undershorts, or the singer leaving her viewing public transfixed, with tears in their eyes. And then there is Huppert, and her practically unparalleled ability to create a character before disappearing inside her. It seems especially telling that her Liliane is frequently found staring off into the middle distance, a zoning-out that as much as anything in the script defines this character's altogether tenuous relationship to even Defurne's heightened and swoony reality. For much of Souvenir, we would appear to be watching a woman imagining what it must be like to be a superstar performer like Isabelle Huppert, and to be desired, revered, successful with it. If you've ever doubted the actual Huppert's place in the pantheon of contemporary actresses, notice the care and thought she applies to even a flagrant piece of fluff like this, which might have been no more than a 2016/17 victory lap, or an exercise in selecting the right lippy and earrings with which to accessorise.

Souvenir opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on August 14. 

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