This being an English film, The Souvenir is drowning in class pressures and expectations. Tom, from a working class family, has learned how to pass, but it hasn’t prevented him from indulging in vices the haughty rich would assume only the poor have to worry about. Julie’s plan for her thesis film is to make some kind of exploitative, poverty porn, Ken Loach ripoff, a project her professors push back against as it has nothing to do with her own life. Julie’s father calls himself a farmer, but he may as well be a feudal lord with the size of his holdings. Hogg is engaged with who’s even allowed to make art in the first place. Would Julie, who we come to see as someone who might be talented one day but not right now, be able to find her creative voice if her lifestyle wasn’t supported by her wealthy parents? If Julie makes her preferred film, would the viewer think they’ve learned something about how the other half lives or would they have the wherewithal to frame what they viewed as a class peer fudging the details? Framing these broader questions against a kind of coming-of-age story places The Souvenir within the spectrum of French cinema and its oft-literary implications, and adds to the film’s feeling of timelessness.
Hogg films much of her work in close-ups, implying a level of emotional honesty, and with a lot of mirrors in the background, implying a counter level of duality and withholding. Julie’s apartment, where much of the film takes place, is covered in wall mirrors, and the effect of characters walking in and out of frame before it’s expected is both disorienting and intriguing, and again speaks to a presumed depth in every scene. The Souvenir’s a quiet and contemplative film that retains attention by always taking care to look interesting. This strategy is mostly successful, though the film does drag at times. The central relationship is immediately recognizable as one-sided and poisonous, and though Burke has his charms, there’s little rooting interest for Anthony and Julie to work it out. Where The Souvenir derives its emotional oomph is between Swinton and Swinton Byrne. This is the latter’s first major role, and there’s something sweet and endearing about her getting her sea legs opposite her mother. Whether or not Swinton Byrne is as comfortable in false teeth and fright wigs as her mother is yet to be seen, but there’s clearly some transference of ability. The Souvenir provides the cineaste with a thoughtful outing and two new talents to look out for. B