Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is minimalist, concentrated and satisfying

Among her greatest talents as a director is Hogg’s use of ellipses.

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With her barbed love story The Souvenir, executive-produced by her number one fan Martin Scorsese, the writer-director Joanna Hogg signals a subtle departure from her earlier work. Gone are the one-word titles of her previous films (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition). And there has been a slight loosening of style for a woman who once shunned the handheld camera and the close-up.

If that’s a mild shock, then the opening montage of life on the breadline in Sunderland will leave Hogg’s admirers fanning themselves with the nearest copy of the World of Interiors. Could it be that she has deserted her preferred milieu of distressed privilege to make a film about the poor? Fear not: the characters in The Souvenir live a mere champagne flute’s throw from Harrods and come from country estates. They go on dates to the Wallace Collection and are prone to pernicious upper-middle-class vices such as heroin and the wearing of monogrammed accessories. 

Sunderland is where Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film school undergraduate, hopes to shoot her debut feature. It is the early 1980s and Julie, like most people her age, is chasing the authentic. Byrne has the breezy androgyny that comes with being the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who stars here as Julie’s befuddled mother, though even Swinton never had the inchoate air of her offspring, who captures Julie’s determination to discover her own voice as well as her confusion at not having the first clue where to find it.

Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man with a job at the Foreign Office and a weakness for jazzy bow-ties. The friendly warmth with which the camera regards Julie and her peers freezes into a wary formality whenever he is on screen. Scenes in which he appears start with a wide shot before moving gradually nearer as if in a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Close-ups of Anthony usually occur only in profile; the fear is he might turn us to stone were we to meet his gaze directly.

Burke has a sluggish, calculated charisma and a face as wide as an unfolded map. He’s heavy-lidded and languid of tongue, a battering-ram chin with a person attached. As Anthony, he speaks with measured relish as he reels off the sort of observations that might flatter a smart but impressionable young woman like Julie. “You’ll always be lost,” he says. The film cuts to her apartment door and sure enough there is a big “L” on it. 

Like any manipulator, he knows how to unspool her all over again. As he queries the personal statement she has written (“I’m not sure sincerity is always enough”), it’s difficult to tell whether he is guiding her towards a superior version of herself or undermining the perfectly good one that already exists. Part of the bully’s trick is to not make it look like bullying at all.

The couple have their differences. Julie blasts out the Fall and John Cooper Clarke while Anthony paces around in his frock-coat to opera. Their life together becomes steadily more interior. Though they live in a busy city, it takes an IRA bomb to make the outside world felt. Even when the rooms get bigger and grander they offer no escape. In Venice, they find themselves in a dark palazzo, their faces caught in a mirror in the corner as though trapped there by a witch’s curse.

After a terrible betrayal, Julie is shown dressed in checks and Anthony in stripes, so that even their clothes seem to be offering relationship advice. The skill of the film lies in how coolly its evidence is assembled. Though Hogg’s script is intimately autobiographical, right down to details such as Anthony taking Julie to see the enigmatic Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting from which the film lifts its title, this is not a rancorous memoir. There’s never any mystery about why Julie is with Anthony, even when we wish she wasn’t.

Hogg presents her actors with a structure but lets them improvise their lines. The downside to this is a minor one: anachronisms such as “dissing” and “haters gonna hate” fall from the lips of those cast members who weren’t alive when the film is set. Among her greatest talents as a director, though, is her use of ellipses or concealment as narrative devices. Unrelated and Archipelago featured arguments in which conflict was overheard but barely seen, and The Souvenir acknowledges the benefits of this technique during a discussion about what Hitchcock omitted from Psycho.

Hogg’s audience is left to work out how her picture’s various clues “tessellate”, to use the word deployed by the pretentious film-maker played by Richard Ayoade. A piece of bad news, for instance, is conveyed with the minimum of dialogue (“the worst”), which makes it a pity that a fuller explanation follows in a subsequent scene. 

This director should keep trusting her minimalist instincts. If she does, then the next instalment of Julie’s story – The Souvenir Part II, which recently finished shooting – may be even more concentrated and satisfying than this. 

The Souvenir (15)
dir: Joanna Hogg

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler