The poster for Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical new film, The Souvenir, is like the photo on the box of a jigsaw puzzle; it shows the entire image when all the pieces are correctly assembled.
And suitably for this enigmatic film, it shows a couple—young film student, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) and and her lover, Anthony (Tom Burke), where three-quarters of the image is a fuzzy reflection of the pair on a glassy surface, while their actual faces are cropped below his large eyes and just above her strong jaw.
Nowhere in the image is there a sign of anything that might be considered a souvenir. And this image or the scene vaguely depicted, is never seen in the movie. Perfect.
Putting together Hogg’s beautiful but frustrating film feels like assembling a compelling puzzle with missing pieces.
Part of this conundrum arises from Hogg’s elliptical storytelling style. Avoiding shopworn romantic tropes or perverting them, she presents Julie and Anthony’s developing relationship in meaningful scenes unsupported by connecting sinew. It’s a risky choice that works at times, emphasizing Julie’s ungrounded and naive understanding of herself, Anthony and the world; but at other times leaves questions of continuity for the viewer.
One wonders though since the movie is structured around Julie crafting a feature in film school if problems of continuity and cohesion aren’t emblematic of her developing mastery. That would certainly be the case given Hogg’s fascinating choice during production to supply a script to all actors but Swinton-Byrne. Instead, she was given Hogg’s diaries, photos, student films, etc. from Hogg’s film school days in the 1980s, which is when Souvenir is set. Swinton- Byrne, in turn, improvises throughout the film, bringing not incoherence to her role but a level of vulnerability and exposure.
The child of a protective and, at times, clueless mother, played by Swinton-Byrne’s own mother, Tilda Swinton, Julie is certainly a sympathetic character, but at times a maddeningly blind one. Since Hogg avoids any scenes where characters verbally express emotions or analyze their relationships, the meaning is pieced together from half-hints, suggestions, tone, and empathy.
The film practically requires multiple viewings to find all the pieces for assemblage. Which for some viewers will be a worthy endeavor, but only if they are willing to spend that much time with Anthony, a particularly unappealing character. His snobbery, pretensions, subterfuge, and inaccessibility combat whatever charm Julie finds in him.
Which, of course, rightly brings us back to Julie. Both defensive and mindless about her privilege, a repeated and developed theme in Hogg’s work, she is vulnerable to Anthony’s machinations, but she is so willing to overlook signals that for the viewer are glaring that I found my sympathy for her sorely tested. And I found the charms she saw in Anthony, little as they are and always literally paid for by her — a romantic trip to Venice, handmade dresses and gowns, meals at expensive restaurants — so suspect and thin that I couldn’t invest much in the two of them.
But that wasn’t necessary for me to be haunted by this film, both while watching it and afterward. Central to that appeal is Hogg’s vision, the incomplete complete picture. I keep coming back to a refrain in the film where an evocative image of a thin slice of ground, several earth-hugging trees, and a large frame of foggy sky, is accompanied by Julie’s voiceover. The language in these scenes is much more literary, more wise and insightful — is she reading from a book as she did earlier to Anthony?
This refrain is such a contrast that I wasn’t surprised that in the final moments of the movie, when Julie opens the tall doors of the sound stage where she has just finished shooting a scene of her student film, the only time in the student film sequences where she actually seems engaged and in control, that the image outside the sound stage, in the real world, is the low horizon, sky-filled landscape of the refrain.
It’s an image equally emblematic of this film as the poster, but it speaks to both the larger world and to Julie’s maturing self-awareness. It’s one of the puzzle pieces that snap together with others, forming an imperfect picture.