The Souvenir (2019)
by Ryan Raitt
Following its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Joanna Hogg’s highly acclaimed sequel The Souvenir Part II (2021) is finally reaching our cinema screens. A semi-autobiographical tale focusing on a young filmmaker creating her graduation film while she learns to move on from a toxic relationship. With anticipation being high, there is no better time to revisit Hogg’s incredibly underrated 2019 self-reflection piece.
Presenting a fleeting, seemingly inconsequential and fragmented narrative, The Souvenir (2019) showcases the toxicity and immaturity found within awkward first loves. Indulging in that feeling of being lost in yourself but finding safety and understanding in a partner, even if that partner is problematic. Communicating those feelings you can’t explain, even when you know they’re no good for you. Honor Swinton Byrne (in her starring role debut) plays an aspiring filmmaker who falls in love with the older and charismatic Anthony (Tom Burke), and that is the only plot Hogg needs in this film that feels timeless.
It’s easy to see this as slow and meandering, yet that would be to disregard the beauty and strength behind each sequence. The Souvenir feels like a scrapbook of memories, the moments you recall in the middle of the night, in their most raw and unfiltered form. It’s an incredibly open account from a director willing to be vulnerable in front of her audience. Hogg’s perception of toxic love may be personal, and her approach openly suggests that she’s not trying to explain these emotions. Yet, there’s a genuine and honest gaze behind every flirtation, manipulation, and conversation, which proposes the idea that no explanation is needed; we all understand the relationship she is exploring.
While Hogg’s screenplay is effectively tender, the film’s beating heart is Swinton Byrne’s
performance. Beautifully naturalistic and gracefully intimate, it never once feels like she’s delivering a performance. Her outstanding portrayal makes sense when we learn that she was encouraged to improvise every scene. Swinton Byrne is not just acting; she is fully manifesting the character of Julie on screen. Alongside this performance, the visuals that Hogg achieves with the film contribute to its unconventional nature. Everything from the set design to the cinematography is gorgeously displayed through a hazy and grainy amalgamation of film and digital. It feels lived in—a perfectly preserved dream.
At first glance, The Souvenir could feel slight. Remaining quiet and incidental for the majority
of its runtime, it can be a challenging watch, but the impact that Hogg achieves with something so simple is beyond outstanding. Not only is it a moving experiment of a director laying bare her past for an audience to experience, but it is also an honest exploration of love within a toxic relationship.
Returning to Belmont Filmhouse on the 16th and 17th of February, The Souvenir is an underseen gem that deserves your attention.
You can watch The Souvenir II and other fantastic titles at the Belmont Filmhouse. Student & Young Person memberships are free and grant you access to all regular screenings at 5£, as well as a weekly exclusive screening on Tuesdays at 2£.