The Souvenir

This is Joanna Hogg’s fourth film and cements her reputation as a documenter of British class and its tangled relationships; her last-but-one outing was Archipelago  where a family holiday in the Isles of Scilly reveals deep rifts within it. See it if you can! It stars my neighbour Tom Hiddleston apart from anything else.

photograph by Agatha A. Nitecka

The film is largely autobiographical and centres round the time Hogg spent at film school with her childhood best friend, one Tilda Swinton. When seeking to replay the events of that period who better to turn to for the part of her mother than Tilda – and her dogs? Still seeking someone to play herself she bumped into Honor (Swinton Burn), Tilda’s daughter and her goddaughter, and realised she was perfect for her character, Julie. She had already cast Tom Burke (TV detective Strike, another one to watch) as her former lover, Anthony. Both he and Tilda had already read their scripts but Honor was to improvise throughout the movie, based on readings of Hogg’s diaries and letters from the early 80s, when the film is set.

This background explains why the film is so captivating, even if a bit long and drawn out at times; but this is signature Hogg. Julie is an upper-class girl living in Mummy and Daddy’s pied-a-terre in Knightsbridge (apparently lovingly recreated to the last detail) with a cockney lodger and his girlfriend, who has moved in without paying rent. At one of Freddy’s frequent chain- and dope-smoking parties chez-elle she meets the classic older man, louche Anthony in his three-piece suit, who claims to do top secret work in the Foreign Office. He listens attentively and encourages her plans for film school, which involve her trying to redress the class wars by making a film about the decay and decline of Sunderland. She is mesmerised by his languid arrogance and seeming expertise on everything

Their courtship centres round elaborate and expensive outings in ornate restaurants fuelled by champagne and fine dining, the giving of sexy suspenders, and a visit to his favourite painting  at the Wallace Collection, The Souvenir by Fragonard, portraying a woman carving her lover’s initials into a tree, where Anthony utters the key lines, ‘ You’re lost and will always be lost’.

Soon Frankie is ejected and Anthony installed, opera booming out over a student’s more Indy taste. It encapsulates the gap between them and, if Julie thought he was to save her from herself, then she was mistaken. Soon she is borrowing money from Mummy for her ‘film projects’, as her lover takes over her life and her attendance becomes erratic – she is lost, perhaps, as Antony foretold. These days we call it coercive control. When Anthony’s filmmaking friend, an hilarious cameo by Richard Ayoade, makes the big reveal about the real reason for Anthony’s enigmatic character, the world falls apart in her face.

Hogg’s trademark is not the script (as we have seen) but what is not said. This is reflected in the cinematography (David Raedeker), all shot in 16 mm, where there are long lingering shots on both Julie’s and Anthony’s faces, marking the twitch of the mouth or the eye; the silences between them as they concentrate on their concealment and lies are nerve-wracking:  their performances are pitch-perfect and astonishing. The outdoor shots are also several seconds more than one expects, slowing the film’s pace down to an intended crawl at times; I know its Hogg’s vision, but sometimes I felt it was a tiny bit arty for its own good. Perhaps it is a vehicle for hiding the pain of Hogg’s catharsis as she recreates the circumstances of her first love. Part 2 was shot consecutively and will be released next year…watch this space!

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