The Souvenir

I’ve never had an experience quite like the one I had when I watched writer and director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. I watched the film with an audience who scoffed, checked their Apple Watches constantly during its sizeable runtime, whispered negative sentiments, and said phrases like “Out of all of the films that could have been made, why did it have to be this one?”

I thought we were all in agreement with this movie, and then I go online to find out that critics are heralding it as being a bold, beautifully pro-feminist film about a woman’s struggle to navigate the creation of art while experiencing a romance heading down the course of devastation. I say this as a heterosexual male who probably should keep his mouth shut, but aside from the fact that the film is written, directed, and stars a female, I don’t see this film as the resounding feminist statement a lot of my fellow critics are seeing it as. To me, the film is boring, lifeless, too dreary for its own good, and has really annoying quirks and habits that just irritate me.

The love interest, Anthony (played by Tom Burke), is an insufferably catty and arrogant asshole with a heroin addiction that talks down to the film’s protagonist Julie (played by Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne). He invalidates her opinions constantly, makes her question herself, steals from her and gets defensive when she confronts him, and he is basically the poster boy for the concept of gas lighting. Every time the two appeared on screen I struggled to find any spark of chemistry, they were both just painfully boring and their dialogue was pretentious and whispered. I’d rather die than hang out with people like that for more than an hour.

“He invalidates her opinions constantly, makes her question herself, steals from her…”

The film has an annoyingly noticeable habit of thrusting its audience into the middle of a conversation with little to no frame of reference. It was a rarity to see a conversation that started organically. I’m sure this was a style choice, but sometimes an idea can be drawn from one to many times, and it gets repetitive and grating. The film would cut to a part featuring a bunch of student filmmakers talking about something, and you’d expend valuable brain energy trying to fill in gaps only for it to have no proper effect on the plot. These sequences did not introduce any main characters or interesting side players, it was just a thing the film did, and it bugged me.

The choice of color is a very grey and muted palette that would have worked if the film’s story had more of darkness to it. Shots linger on the scenery and décor a little too long for my taste. I get it, we have a character in Julie that wants to tell a story about the down and outs, but she lives an extravagantly posh life full of espressos and weekend trips to Paris or whatever, haha, funny joke. We get more people talking down to Julie as she aspires to be a filmmaker dominated by a male presence, and I see the meta-ness as a write this review.

But I’m genuinely happy people enjoyed Joanna Hogg’s film even though I did not. It seems like it’s gaining an audience and I can respect that. This film was not my cup of tea, but you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Not everything has to be made to appease me. I’m sure this film is a very personal and autobiographical project for Hogg, but I don’t identify with the story told here, and I’m not fond of the way it’s told either.

“I totally see Honor Swinton Byrne being a megastar in the making…”

Honor Swinton Byrne is wonderful in the film, but I wish she stood up for herself a bit more and showed more strength. I’m guessing that’s tough when you find yourself loving a “charming” heroin addict, but I would have loved to see more proactivity on her part. Despite the questionable graininess and dreary color choices, the film is competently shot and almost has a documentary type feel to it. Tilda Swinton has a few great scenes in the film, but I feel like she’s basically wasted on the role she’d been given. I couldn’t stand Tom Burke’s smug portrayal of Anthony, and I couldn’t understand the attraction one would have towards someone so up their own ass.

The film speeds towards a predictable conclusion you can see coming from miles away, and when things finally happen the film just kind of flings itself off of a cliff and end with little-to-no fanfare. I saw it with an audience who was visibly bored out of their wits, so maybe there’s another critic/general audience divide we’ve been starting to see recently? Maybe there’s something I’m not getting out of the experience based on my own experiences where I can’t suspend my suspension of disbelief and learn to love characters that I have nothing in common with?

All I know is that The Souvenir needed more Richard Ayoade, I love that dude and he makes a memorable but way too short cameo. I totally see Honor Swinton Byrne being a megastar in the making, but aside from a few interesting ideas and performances, this film was a big dud for me I wouldn’t know anyone I’d recommend it to.

The Souvenir (2019) Written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Jake Phillips Head, Jaygann Ayeh. The Souvenir screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

4.5 out of 10

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