I watched Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir with four other women at 10 a.m. on a Friday, in a screening room on New York’s Upper East Side. It was a strangely communal experience, especially for a film that’s almost suffocating in the way that it slowly isolates its protagonist in a bad relationship.
The Souvenir opened at Sundance to so much critical acclaim that A24 has already bought the distribution rights to its sequel (reportedly starring Robert Pattinson), which begins production later this summer. And frankly, it’s as good as you’ve heard.
Honor Swinton Byrne — Tilda Swinton’s 21-year-old daughter, in a breathtaking debut performance — plays Julie, a student living in London in the early 1980s. Her Knightsbridge apartment betrays her upper-class roots, but Julie cares. Her graduation feature film is set in the crumbling dockyards of Sunderland, afflicted by crippling Thatcher-era economic inequality. When we first meet Julie she’s painfully earnest and idealistic, but also ambitious, a hard worker with a large social circle. During a party hosted by Julie and her roommate, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a dark-haired, renegade Foreign Office cog with a Lord Byron coat. And mistaking his contrarian opinions about art versus life for intellectual prowess, she falls hard.
The atmospheric genius of Hogg’s film is that, like the boiling frog from the saying, it creeps up on you. By the time you — and Julie — realise what’s happening, her friends, and most of her family, are at arm’s length, leaving her wholly dependent on an oh-so-charming heroin addict with antiquated ideas about women. Progressively, Anthony sucks up more and more of her energy, leaving little for her dreams and passions. Even her apartment — into which he wheedles his way by claiming he needs a place to stay for a few nights, and quickly moving in — is no longer really her own space.
And yet Julie’s friends, and especially her prim, emotionally repressed mother Rosalind (real-life mom Tilda Swinton, who gives a subdued but powerful performance punctuated with real humour) are too polite to point out what is obvious to everyone but her: Anthony and his bow-tie are bad news.
The story itself is loosely based on the director’s own experience with a toxic relationship in her early 20s that nearly derailed her career, and therefore feels incredibly personal. But that feeling also projects outwards, reflecting into the audience and back again. In Julie, you see your most naive, trusting self, but also all the friends you should have warned, or comforted, or helped.
As a result, experiencing the film with a small group of women was almost surreal in its intimacy. One woman gasped every time Anthony casually asks Julie for money. Another shifted uncomfortably at his casual put-downs. And I physically cringed lower and lower in my seat when Julie, who has just confronted Anthony in a sensible and logical manner only to be met with intense guilt, begs his forgiveness by kissing his knuckles repeatedly.
Those kinds of visceral reactions are testaments to Hogg’s skill as a director, but also cinematographer David Raedecker’s beautifully composed shots. One in particular, in which Julie hooks up with a stranger later on in the film, resonates. Lying on the bed in an open silk kimono, she looks incredibly young. But it’s also the first time in the film that she’s really taken up any room.
That’s all the more impressive given that Swinton Byrne has magnetic screen presence. She keeps our eyes glued to her, even as she’s fighting to stop herself disappearing from the world she inhabits. What’s exciting is that she’s evenly matched with Burke, who, as Anthony, is a smooth-talking nightmare. Clearly in the middle of a psychological and emotional crisis, he keeps it together with a veneer of old world bourgeoisie. (On their first date, he takes Julie to a kind of gilded moth-eaten social club dining room that feels like its heyday peaked in the time of Downton Abbey, and verbally spars with her about art.) But what initially comes off as sophisticated seediness is in reality just the latter.
Hogg does a great job of balancing out the more egregious moments between them with scenes that highlight their real chemistry and affection, like when Anthony playfully accuses Julie of taking up too much of the bed in an effort to seduce him the first night he sleeps over. It’s almost cute, but any woman who’s been through something similar can’t help but feel that undertone of pernicious pressure to go through with something that might not have originally been in the cards.
It’s a testament to the subtlety of Stéphane Collonge’s production design that I didn’t fully realise the film was set in the ‘80s until about 10 minutes in, when not a single person pulled out their phone during the party scene, and The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” starts playing on the radio. (I didn’t actually think that it was a tribute to Call Me By Your Name, but I also didn’t not think that.)
It’s that quiet specificity that makes the universe of The Souvenir feel like a small snapshot of real life. I left the darkness of that cinema feeling vulnerable and a little breathless, but also proud of the woman I’d seen grow over the course of two hours. And though it feels strange to say this about something so delicate, involving neither superheroes nor dragons, I can’t wait for the sequel.
The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from 31st August