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The Souvenir

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Two hours into looking for the mislaid car keys: Think…where is the last time you remember having them?

Synopsis:  Film student in 1980’s Britain has a trainwreck boyfriend. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)

While the 2020 pandemic permanently knocked out some arthouse theaters, arthouses movies live on. Director-screenwriter Joanna Hogg’s bildungsroman The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II(2021) are placed  firmly in the arthouse tradition with melancholy characters, oblique sequences, fraught entanglements and confusing theses. Now, because  I actually like this kind of stuff, I’m willing to put up with whiffs of pretention so long as the bon mots volleyed are entertaining and the meaning of life discourses are thought-provoking.  

Let’s check-in with a genuine arthouse entry, The Souvenir... Honor Swinton Byrne is  Julie, a film student in 1980’s England. She has a posh apartment financed by her wealthy parents who live in the countryside. Off and on the movie subjects us to Julie’s ideas for a film. When she’s not clanking away on her typewriter, she’s participating in workshops where she and her fellow students stand in a circle and have circular discussions on things like the shower scene in Psycho. At one point, an elderly white male prof scolds her for proposing to do a film about impoverished people when she’s from Knights effing Bridge. Ouch… 

Julie seems to be a good egg, if notably naive for a London woman on the cusp of her 25th birthday. Case in point… She meets some  forty year old guy, Anthony (Tom Burke), at a film student party who looks like he just wandered in off the street. His appeal for her seems to be that he listens and nods knowingly while Julie talks about her film idea or poverty or something. I’m not sure he was interested, I think he was just high as f**k.

Anthony quickly and repeatedly sends up red flags. He says that he works for the Foreign Office which he finds boring (believable) and occasionally needs to steal from her for his job (not believable).   He tells her that he needs to stay with her for awhile, but he can’t tell her why (homeless). When she asks why he has bruises atop his veins, he says he doesn’t know how that happened; then asks her for a tenner. Well, watch out Julie because your bf seems like an IV drug user to me. Better have him wrap it up lest he transmit hepatitis or HIV to you. I bet her cranky film prof would tell her that this is more fertile ground for a film subject.

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Tilda Swinton with her daughter Honor and dogs, enjoying some downtime before she is needed onset for the next Wes Anderson film.

They go out to stuffy lunch clubs where Anthony smokes and she pays the bill. At her place, they listen to opera while he smokes and she pays the bills.  With calm cruelty he tells her that she is a freak. When she foolishly asks him to elaborate instead of showing his ass to the door, he responds that she is a freak because of her “fragility.” Thanks for clearing that up, Anthony.  

While Burke is a good actor, I can’t say that Swinton Byrne is, and they generate no heat onscreen. The lack of chem reminded me of a community theater production I once saw of The Sound of Music in which a high school girl played nun-governess Maria and Captain Von Trapp was a retirement-age hairstylist.

I can’t entirely blame the actors though because the movie is sort of an anti-narrative. Reportedly, the director-screenwriter wrote dialog for everyone except the character Julie, leaving non-actor Swinton Byrne to improvise. I think this partially explains why she either says nothing in response to other characters or starts crying.

In a suspected case of contagious crying, Burke’s Anthony holds hands with Julie at lunch and starts sobbing.  Maybe he needed a few quid for drugs. Lucky for him, Julie is a veritable ATM.  Sometimes the poor thing has to go out to the countryside and ask mum (Tilda Swinton) for some cash for “film equipment.” Julie says she’ll pay her back. We know that this is a lie. Just like we know it’s a lie when Anthony disappears for the night because of “work.”

I feel I should mention one of the conventions of arthouse films that is used to good effect here– the movie title making reference to a work of art. For example, the sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which also gets extra points for being in French. In the case of The Souvenir, the reference is to a 1776 oil painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard which pictures a young woman carving intitals into a tree. The tree-assailer is  modeled after the heroine of a Rousseau novel named … can you guess? Julie! I hope she didn’t have a bad boyfriend who told her that “you’re lost and will always be lost” and wrote her sad boi letters where he gaslights her.

Just so you know, there is a continuation of Julie’s story The Souvenir Part II  (2021) in which the audience is threatened with hearing and seeing more of melancholy Julie’s student film. Just out of curiosity, I might take a gander because R Patz and Joe Alwyn make appearances along with Tilda Swinton again. And, best of all, Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Gadget Man, Travel Man)shows up again as a cosmopolitan cynic. His character, Patrick offered sage commentary on everything from film school to heroin use, ” It’s mainstream… I mean it was fine in the 1940’s.” Yes, It is important to stay on the cutting edge. Go ahead, 1980’s folks, and grab a Diet Coke* before it goes mainstream. Oops, too late.

* The bevvie was introduced in 1982.

P.S. For a better arthouse film and lead performance, check out  An Education, starring Carey Mulligan.

Movie Loon’s Movie Reviews Shortcut:

Grade: C-

Cut to the Chase: Disjointed and ponderous. Tom Burke and Tilda Swinton (in a much smaller role) toss off some good acting, but the romantic couple, Julie & Anthony, are uninteresting.

Humor Highlight: Richard Ayoade!

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