Film Review - The Souvenir

Honor Swinton Byrne plays a film student with a well-to-do mother — played by Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton — in “The Souvenir.”

The Souvenir

★★★★

Rated R, 115 minutes.

Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.

Film Review - The Souvenir

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets ensnared in a relationship with the manipulative Anthony (Tom Burke) in “The Souvenir.”

Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a story that you couldn’t possibly bear the thought of doing anything else until you’ve consumed it from cover to cover? You want to be alone with it, absorb its material and shirk off all your responsibilities and other interests to piece together the narrative elements and fantasize about living in such conditions.

That’s what happened to me while watching Joanna Hogg’s profound film The Souvenir — the first chapter in what will soon become a two-part heartbreaker for indie distributor A24. As strange as it may sound that a cinematic experience can hold such power without the existence of wizards or superheroes, watching The Souvenir is essentially like having a conversation about a great book. It’s poetic in its structure and the feelings that it evokes. Some will undoubtedly take it at surface level. But if you allow yourself to soak up all its subtleties, metaphorical meanings and connections to the truth, it will offer many intellectual and emotional gifts.

Set in 1980s London, The Souvenir concerns a shy but ambitious 24-year-old film student named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) who’s intent on making a feature film about a boy growing up in the working-class shipyards south of Newcastle. Consistently challenged by an authority for choosing to focus on stories that drift away from her own struggles and experiences, Julie seeks inspiration. She parties with her flatmates, takes photographs and strikes up conversations with strangers to discuss her creative ambitions.

A seemingly healthy source comes in the form of Anthony (Tom Burke, who looks like a young Stacy Keach but with the sophisticated voice of Michael Fassbender’s Inglourious Basterds character). Anthony has an aristocratic bearing that captures Julie’s best interests. He listens to her, quizzes her point of view and charms her. One sequence of Anthony diagnosing Julie with “bed dysmorphism” for taking up too much of the sleep space in her room is exceptionally endearing and comical. It’ll put you inside her shoes and make you understand why her relationship becomes such a protest when she learns certain truths about him.

FILM-SOUVENIR-REVIEW

From left, Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in "The Souvenir." 

As the film goes on, the relationship becomes completely toxic and dashes Julie’s dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Anthony frequently asks her for money, which forces her to request more from her well-to-do parents (including Byrne’s own mother Tilda Swinton). He proves himself to be an untrustworthy and complicated figure, but Julie can’t help but bend to his will. No matter what her friends and family may share, it’s a reality she must face alone.

Movies about bad romances aren’t uncharted territory, but Hogg brings an incredible amount of depth to the table, making The Souvenir ring truer to the human experience. The Souvenir takes its time with lengthy scenes of characters analyzing each other. One of the film’s most notable sequences arrives midway through when Julie and Anthony sit down for a casual dinner with some friends (Richard Ayoade and Lydia Fox). The scene is shot using the mirrors in Julie’s living room. Mirrors become a motif throughout the narrative, hinting at self-reflection. Even the film that Julie wants to make explores areas of her behavior that she is blind to.

In that scene, after Anthony escapes to grab another bottle of wine, Ayoade’s character asks Julie why she thinks she is romantically paired with Anthony, who displays “mainstream behavior.” She’s so baffled by his sincerity that it sends her down a rabbit hole of thought she has trouble pulling herself out of. She becomes suddenly fixed on wanting to figure Anthony out, but it’s not long that she surrenders to his manipulative ways.

This observation becomes more apparent when Julie’s flat is burglarized, and she later learns that the burglar is none other than Anthony. He uses the money from the items he stole to pay for an Italian getaway trip for them. Even as Julie discovers Anthony’s lies and calculations, she gets further tangled in his web.

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Honor Swinton Byrne, right, and Tom Burke in "The Souvenir." 

In my experience, I had someone very dear to me encounter a situation similar to Julie’s. Warnings fell on deaf ears and advice was ignored. Eventually, people in manipulative relationships have to discover the truth on their own. It’s certainly a thought I’ve found myself becoming more and more lost in. I think about how my son will have relationships in his life that are doomed to fail, but they have to learn. You can only guide them, offer advice and hope they make the right choices. Regardless, bad relationships make it easier to spot good ones.

Perhaps this is where the film takes its title from. While it refers to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1778 rococo painting (which makes an appearance in the movie), the souvenir could be Julie’s relationship with Anthony that teaches her to grow. There are many meanings, some even sinister, that “souvenir” could have. The fact that Julie’s name could be taken from the person who is in the painting adds another layer of intrigue.

The Souvenir is an onion of curiosity. I have a feeling that I will be peeling it apart for years to come, and I’m sure many questions will be answered in the film’s sequel due out next year, co-starring Robert Pattinson. However, if I have gathered anything from Hogg’s work, it’s that she isn’t going lay the answers down gently. She wants to challenge you and evoke a response. So, if you would like to partake in one of the best, most thoughtful films of the year, accept The Souvenir.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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