Joanna Hogg’s new movie is her most intensely personal yet – but this mysterious and beautiful film is not revelatory in any obvious way. I have seen it twice since writing about the premiere at Sundance in January, and the things about it that perplexed and baffled and bemused and entranced me then have done so more fiercely in the meantime. Yet its difficulties now feel not like flaws but rather sunspots of inspiration. The mother-daughter relationship is quietly superb and the musical interludes are wonderful: there is a glorious outing for Robert Wyatt’s haunting Shipbuilding and Willie Mabon’s Poison Ivy.
The Souvenir has already received plaudits as a breakthrough for this director – although I don’t think she needed a “breakthough”, given that each of her three previous films has been a triumphantly creative leap forward for those open-minded enough to see them. The rather lovely poster image of its two leads might induce audiences to expect something romantic and comfortingly mainstream. Wrong. The Souvenir is an artefact in the highest auteur register. Its absence of tonal readability is a challenge. But there is also a cerebrally fierce, slow-burn passion in its austere, unemphasised plainness.
Hogg conducts her dramatic business in a sort of indoor available light, with characters often receding into semi-darkness if they walk away from windows: a look Hogg has contrived in her other films. It is a film about the upper classes, but not in the Downton Abbey style: it is about the upper classes as they actually are, in the dull day-to-day; a social realist movie about posh people. It’s as if Hogg has found a contemporary English response to the rhetoric of Antonioni or Visconti.
The setting is the early 80s, and a sweet-natured young film student called Julie lives in a smart flat in London’s Knightsbridge, just across from the cupola of Harrods department store. This is evidently a pied-à-terre kept by her extremely well-off parents, who have a country place in north Norfolk. Her mother sometimes pops in after shopping expeditions, and is always having to “lend” Julie money for her film projects, yet Julie is charmingly open about her advantages in life.
Then the vampiric figure of Anthony makes his appearance. He is a supercilious, opinionated young man with a job in the Foreign Office and an insidious knack of playing on Julie’s insecurities by asking pointedly sceptical, quizzical questions about her work and airily claiming to admire Powell and Pressburger. His seduction technique involves taking her to the Wallace Collection to see Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir. It isn’t long before this sinister character has moved in and is buying Julie erotic lingerie, taking her to Venice, disrupting her film-making plans and upending her life.
In another movie, this would make for black comedy, and it feels like the plot for something by Muriel Spark, or an early AN Wilson novel. But comedy isn’t what’s happening. So what is? Something far subtler and more incremental.
Anthony is played with understated arrogance by Tom Burke, and newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne gives a graceful and insouciant performance as Julie. She is the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who duly plays Julie’s mother, unobtrusively aged up as a patrician mamma. At first I wondered if there was meta-textual humour in this casting but it is simply that their on-screen rapport is tremendous.
Hogg creates an almost trance-like state with the film, which she shakes off when Anthony and Julie host a dinner party attended by Anthony’s insufferable film-maker friend (a hilarious cameo for Richard Ayoade) who brayingly announces that it is appalling how Britain, the home of the Stones, the Kinks and the Small Faces, still doesn’t do movie musicals. (He doesn’t mention the Who, so is maybe not a fan of Tommy.) It is this character who will reveal the poison cloud gathering over the head of poor innocent Julie.
The Souvenir is at least partly autobiographical on Hogg’s part, and it sometimes feels as if it is circling around and around a memory that is too painful to be approached directly, of an episode which arguably endangered her development as an artist and in another way stimulated it. But there is something so coolly elegant in this circling – a choreography of young love, and a talent preparing to take flight.