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‘The Souvenir’ Announces Director Joanna Hogg As a Major Cinematic Voice

The English director’s work has been long admired, but her new film—a story about art, addiction, and the 1980s—is a breakthrough achievement

A24/Ringer illustration

Films about addiction tend to have the same compulsive, convulsive rhythms as their subjects. Think of how the methodical pacing of Leaving Las Vegas is precisely keyed to Nicolas Cage’s lachrymose self-loathing, or how Goodfellas’ point-of-view shots grow increasingly bloodshot as Ray Liotta keeps snorting cocaine. In Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, the fabric of reality frays and rips in sync with the character’s subjective perceptions. Even in benign stoner comedies like The Big Lebowski or Smiley Face, the relationship between the heroes’ chronic dependence on chronic and the underlying narrative patterning is clear. Whether tracing aimless figure eights or circling the vortex of self-destruction, these movies adopt the contours of a vicious circle.

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir takes a layered, concentric approach to the substance abuse subgenre—it’s got circles within circles. Anthony (Tom Burke) is a suave, foreign office worker in early-1980s London toiling on dangerous assignments involving the IRA and domestic terrorism. He is in his mid-30s and addicted to heroin. His girlfriend, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is a film student 10 years his junior. She is addicted to him. It would probably have been too on the nose (and, I guess, a decade out of date) for Hogg to include Roxy Music’s sublime 1975 single “Love Is the Drug” on her smartly curated period soundtrack of U.K. pop hits, but the idea of infatuation as a kind of helpless habit defines Julie’s difficult and yet increasingly desperate attraction. Julie doesn’t indulge in any drugs herself, but Anthony’s constant need for a fix renders her a kind of user by proxy.

The Souvenir is told from Julie’s perspective, which is in part informed by her creator’s memories of her own post-adolescent experiences and relationships. In a recent New Yorker profile, Hogg—whose emergence over the past decade with a series of increasingly accomplished and acclaimed art films has positioned her as one of Britain’s major contemporary filmmakers—is unambiguous (but still discreet) about the autobiographical underpinnings of Julie’s story, as well as the catalyzing effect it had on her own artistic development. “When I was with him,” she recalls, “I was in a film—a genre film, a Hitchcock film that had a lot of mystery and intrigue. … I did a lot of detective work, I dressed very glamorously, I went to glamorous places.”

The way that The Souvenir oscillates between inhabiting its heroine’s state of hypnotic thrall and snapping out of it to provide a clearer-eyed assessment of her plight—as well as her complicity in it—makes it one of the most impressively directed features of the year. In her previous films, including 2013’s Exhibition, about a pair of artists whose distanced and dysfunctional cohabitation gradually transforms their sterile, exquisite London living/workspace into a kind of modernist maximum-security prison, Hogg cultivated a spare, detached aesthetic far removed from the nervy exertions of peers like Steve McQueen or Ben Wheatley. Her fascination with observing bourgeois characters in slowly mounting crisis was closer to Olivier Assayas or Michael Haneke, albeit without the latter’s show-off sadism. (Anybody looking to play catch-up with her filmography is hereby directed to the Criterion Channel, which is hosting a streaming retrospective supplemented with video essays and interviews.)

Formally, The Souvenir is of a piece with its predecessors, all carefully fixed camera angles and fragmented plot details, but it’s also less coy and more emotionally transparent. In working so closely to—and with—aspects of her own past, the director accesses and harnesses a new sense of impact. The conduit for that force is Byrne, whose performance as Julie carries the movie, even as her dynamic with her costar requires a sort of painful self-effacement. Julie’s willingness to be dominated by Anthony—first conversationally, then sexually, and then financially—is seemingly at odds with her desire to be a film director, a vocation defined by control. Her inability to assert herself fully at her pricey university represents the collateral damage the affair is taking on her mental and physical health. It also suggests that, subconsciously, she’s not necessarily ready to take the reins.

Anthony’s giftor rather, grift—is for supplying Julie with a flamboyant, almost impossibly seductive lifestyle that she then subsidizes. This happens consciously (we see her signing for their champagne-in-the-afternoon lunches) and also obliviously, as when he lies—very obviously to us, but successfully, at least on some level, to her—that their flat (which is paid for by her parents) has been burgled on the eve of a trip to Venice. The revelation that Anthony has stolen jewelry to pay for drugs is not surprising: What’s startling, and disturbing, is the speed with which Julie moves not only to forgive him but to apologize for her part in making him so upset.

This is all extremely uncomfortable stuff, and the elegance of the backdrop—all the material wealth that Julie’s very visible privilege affords her—complicates the movie in interesting ways. On a recent episode of A24’s podcast A Bigger Canvas, Hogg talked with Martin Scorsese—who has an executive producer credit here, as he did on Wheatley’s Free Fire—about how The Souvenir is a film set “inside the bubble of a relationship.” But there are really two bubbles, the larger one being Julie’s well-funded existence. It would be possible to view the film, and, by extension, Hogg’s own backstory, quite unsympathetically, as a poor-little-rich-girl fable in which Julie’s inability to master her feelings is an indicator of weakness, and possibly a deeper irresponsibility. From this vantage, she’s not a victim but an enabler, and at the same time safely insulated from the political and economic disaster unfolding around her 24 hours a day.

But Hogg is not only aware of these disparities, but she weaves them into the texture of the film. Julie hears explosions in the street and peers out the window to make out their source, a voyeur rather than a casualty. Discussing her potential film project with Anthony’s family, she expresses a hope to document harsh working conditions in the port town of Sunderland, sounding every inch a naive, idealistic big-city liberal. Of the script’s various sharply etched subtexts, the most cutting one is how Julie’s time with Anthony distances her from that assignment, as well as the hypothetical principles attached to it. At the same time, it’s arguable that her commitment to Anthony, even in the stretches where he disappears, is itself an assertion of principles. The familiarity of this narrative doesn’t mean that Hogg is a derivative dramatist, but that she’s located something true—for her, certainly, and probably for many others—about first love, which is that, in the moment, its potential dissolution feels like the end of the world.

Most of the press about The Souvenir has focused on the all-in-the-family aspect of its casting: Byrne is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, and Swinton appears in the movie in a small but crucial role as Julie’s mother, a caring, attentive, and yet quietly judgmental figure. A fleeting interaction where she glances at her daughter’s fingernails speaks volumes. Hogg’s collaboration with Swinton extends back to her film-school days as well—the actress appeared in her 1986 short, Caprice—and her presence doubles down on the overall roman à clef vibe. Obviously, Byrne matches up well in scenes with her real-life mother, but she also gives a major performance that makes Julie’s almost grateful sense of paralysis in Anthony’s presence lucid. The very particular contradiction between intelligence and instinct, between knowing better and not acting on it, exists at the center of Julie’s character, and the fine-grained gradations in Byrne’s acting, as in a wonderfully pitched scene where the pair first share a bed, trading chaste put-ons, are what make the material work.

Technically speaking, The Souvenir is superb, and unlike some other anal-retentive auteurs who turn every camera movement into an event, Hogg’s sense of control stops short of self-aggrandizement. The images, courtesy of cinematographer David Raedeker (who gives as much of a star-making performance behind the camera as Byrne does in front of it) shift between grainy 16mm film and crisp digital without ever drifting into simple prettiness. When ugliness appears, it’s restrained, to the point that a single smear of blood in a decisive sequence seems visceral and horrifying. There’s a bit of David Cronenberg in the damage Anthony does to Julie’s apartment. Cracking mirrors and breaking doors becomes a way of visualizing his inner ruin. Hogg’s ability to connect environment to psychology, which was the gist of Exhibition, may be her signature talent.

Like many films about filmmakers, The Souvenir is to some extent preoccupied with the mechanisms and rituals of creating cinema from the ground up. The scenes at Julie’s film school offer a kind of running metacommentary on Hogg’s own process, like a group discussion of the shower scene in Psycho (which Julie rightly analyzes as working because of what Hitchcock doesn’t quite show), or a fellow student’s advocacy for the then-emergent cinema du look—exemplified by Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 thriller Diva—a movement whose perfume-commercial aesthetic is implied to be style over substance.

As for Julie’s own film, we see only glimpses of its production, but the project provides The Souvenir with a kind of dramatic through line: Its struggles, delays, and ultimate realization mirror her trajectory—and spins Hogg’s already heady art-imitates-life strategy into a splintered hall of mirrors. There is an intricate, perfectly executed shot toward the end of the movie where we see Julie on set, lost in reverie (or is it concentration?), as her crew executes a sophisticated sequence. It’s triumphant but also ambivalent. Is she focused on the task at hand or thinking of the thing that had distracted her for so long from undertaking it? Are those two things even divisible? If Julie is a doppelgänger for Hogg, then it could be taken as the latter’s ultimate assertion of her own real creative control, but a cut to the character dwarfed against a massive studio door—which opens up to reveal an expressionistically blue-hued skyscape right out of the films of Powell and Pressburger—uses scale to feint in a different direction.

Hogg’s plan is to follow up The Souvenir with a sequel following Julie through the next phase of her young adulthood. She has already secured the services of Robert Pattinson, whose enthusiasm to lend his celebrity to small, idiosyncratic art films is Swintonesque. It’s an interesting choice in that The Souvenir is very much a fully formed work, but its greatest quality may be that it’s also provisional, eschewing conclusions—about Julie, her art, or her future—and emphasizing instead a sense of possibility. It’s rare to see a film that’s at once completely achieved and honestly—as opposed to strategically—open-ended. The Souvenir is satisfying precisely because it leaves us wanting more.