Monday 23 December 2019

On demand: "The Souvenir"

I've arrived at Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir late, and with some trepidation. Hogg's first features upon transitioning out of episodic television - 2007's Unrelated, 2010's Archipelago - marked her out as a promising observer of the British class system, but she blew much of this viewer's goodwill during 2013's Exhibition, a woe-is-me endurance test about the struggles of two artists to get the right price for their bijou split-level property in the London marketplace. I needn't have been so cautious: The Souvenir, which instantly slots in as Hogg's most complete and fascinating picture, is something like a British equivalent of Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye, First Love, poking through the ashes of a formative coup de foudre in order to see if any diamantine-hard, universal truths might now be recovered. Hogg sets about this task with an impressive precision. Choice soundtrack cues ("Ghost Town", The Fall, Robert Wyatt doing "Shipbuilding") and the faded-Polaroid hues of David Raedeker's expert photography combine with dinner party conversation about the IRA to establish the fact we're in the early days of Thatcher's Britain; it's here we meet a twentysomething film student called Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), living in Knightsbridge yet with vague plans to undertake a project about the depressed communities around Sunderland. (The film opens with black-and-white photos of the area taken by Hogg herself in her younger days: already, the lines separating fiction from fact are being blurred.) The project seems to fall by the wayside, however, once Julie falls for Anthony (Tom Burke), a man from the Foreign Office she meets at a party. We can see why she falls for him: in everything from his suit and suspenders to the low, conspiratorial rumble of his voice, Anthony is very much a man, The Man. Yet with the benefit of Hogg's hindsight, we can also see why this is the kind of man a trusting young woman would do well to keep a certain distance from: one who displays the cold indifference peculiar to the English upper classes, born of not having to care too much, because he already has it all, nasty secrets included.

The drama that follows from this set-up confirms Hogg as a poet of prickly passive-aggression, and that poetry derives in large part from her improvisational methods. We know broadly where this relationship is headed (south), but the snapshots we get of it turn twitchy and unpredictable; there's something about the way she encourages her actors to circle lightly around the point of any scene that makes these characters appear grabby, even violent whenever they lurch towards it. Inevitably, it's the older, worldlier Anthony, not the recessive Julie, who asserts himself most often: asking to borrow a few quid from his squeeze, then making off with a tenner, or blithely sliding the bill for afternoon tea Julie's way. (Hogg identifies money as a rich source of English disquiet.) The part depends on Burke being masterful, and he is: the actor somehow makes Anthony impressive, bordering on attractive - it's in the way he speaks, and the natural air of superiority with which he holds a cigarette - without concealing the wreck of a man that must emerge once the suit comes off. (It's as if those suspenders are the only thing holding him together.) Opposite him, Swinton Byrne is mostly reactive - Julie's someone finding something out the hard way - yet while we wait for this bad penny to drop, Hogg grants her several of the year's most expressive close-ups; this actress has inherited from her mother the ability to compel simply by being before the camera. Julie might merely have been a flattering self-portrait of the creative in love, as so many male writer-directors have painted or doodled over the years, except Hogg the elder remembers how guileless this girl is and was, and spots how her capacity for forgiveness might be both the making and breaking of her. She instead becomes the image of the young woman carving her lover's initials into the tree in the Fragonard miniature from which The Souvenir borrows its title: a tall, upright streak of empathy whom seasoned onlookers will fear is about to get a little squashed, if not outright crushed. Where men bound into relationships with certainty, women must arm themselves with fragile hope.

There's something sociological about that observation, and The Souvenir proves scarcely less clinical in its make-up than Hogg's previous films. That shouldn't be taken as a negative, however: it suggests the filmmaker has obtained the necessary distance on these events (which I don't think she had on those of Exhibition), and it allows her to better understand Anthony's erratic and exasperating behaviour. (Much as Julie is laid low with an infection contracted from her wayward swain, so too Hogg has retained slivers of ice in her blood: some relationships stay with you in funny ways.) I do wonder whether this is one of those movies destined to play better with critics and cinephiles than it is with the wider public, partly because of that coolness, partly because of all the film school chit-chat going on in the background; in both its look and its core temperature, it's not a million miles away from the kind of film that emerged (and drew similarly rave reviews) in the British art cinema's Eighties heyday. Yet it exhibits a chilly fascination that may just draw you in as Julie is drawn into Anthony's orbit. We find ourselves in a period movie that refuses all complacency or comforting nostalgia, that keeps disrupting its own periodness via an offcentre perspective, an unlikely, too-loud soundtrack cue, an ugly, grainy image, a look at the camera, or some other form of bad behaviour. If The Souvenir feels unusually modern for a film set in the era of Bronski Beat, that's because the underlying dynamic (which is to say the power imbalance) between its lovers has hardly disappeared in the years since, and because the memories this narrative preserves clearly, vividly linger. We should note, too, the rare accomplishment of making a British period piece that never once feels remotely Tory: gimlet-eyed in its description of how easily vulnerable souls can fall under the spell of posh bullshitters, The Souvenir may just stand as the film that speaks most closely to the experience of living in the Britain of 2019.

The Souvenir is available to stream and on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye.

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