Sundance in Review: The Souvenir

So for those of you who want a brief synopsis, this movie is directed by, written by, and based off the life experience of Johanna Hogg, British film maker who, as described by the man who introduced the film, “is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as she should be.” It stars Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who makes her acting debut, and seemingly her debut to the world, in the film. (A search for Swinton-Byrne’s Instagram will bring you to a couple pages with zero pictures, either accounts started by Honor or someone who knew of her, but never posted to.) Hogg did not give Swinton-Byrne a script, only a collection of diaries and letters from that time in her life, and then told her to improvise each scene with the other actors, following along with the script as well as improvising to match Swinton-Byrne. “The Souvenir” is a dreamy contemplation of how young men who think they’re unique and special can manipulate young women who are equally unique and special, to devastating consequence.

The film follows the arc of Julie (the film makes no pretense that Julie is anyone other than a reimaging of filmmaker Johanna Hogg in the 80’s) and her boyfriend, Anthony. Julie is a blue-eyed film student with a dark pseudo-pixie cut that she pairs with bulky button-downs and boyish cut jeans. The viewer might get the impression that she really ought to be dating women, but nonetheless couples up with Anthony. Her heroin-addict lover is a brooding man who claims to work for British Intelligence, but the film watches him request to borrow money from Julie far more than any mention of working. “The Souvenir” slips the viewer into an understanding of Anthony’s addiction through Julie’s eyes when he notices track marks. At first, she doesn’t make much of this, that is until a dinner guest makes note of Anthony’s heroin use, assuming Julie knows. It is not treated like an actual problem, until Anthony steals several of Julie’s valuables, and claims they were robbed.The scene in which Julie apologizes for being upset with Anthony lying about the robbery (you read that correctly) elicited a more vocal response from the audience than any comedic response. Multiple people sharing the premiere showing with Honor Swinton-Byrne, Johanna Hogg, and other celebrities including Tessa Thompson, groaned a familiar groan, one that said: oh god, I’d do the same if I were her, wouldn’t I? Throughout the film, time and time again, viewers see glimpses of toxicity of the relationship--its demise driven by an addict who tore down Julie and cut her artistic potential short. This overarching theme stirred thoughts of my own friends in similar situations. And more over, I thought: “how hasn’t this story been told before?” Surely, there are many more women who had great artistic potential, but loved a man who stopped them, intentionally or not. In a scene after Anthony and Julie break up, a friend asks Julie why he hasn’t seen her in classes. She, more confidently than she ever spoke to Anthony, explains she was in a relationship that consumed her time, but she’s back now and doing better.

The film seems to take delight in it's own dreariness and the landscape of abuse that Julie suffers through, all of which serve ample time for the camera to soak up Swinton-Byrne's brilliant performance. It's difficult to believe this is her acting debut, until you remember she was literally made by Tilda Swinton. Swinton-Byrne entered the theatre for the premiere in an all-black ensemble accented with gold boots, and had an easy self-assuredness and charisma about her that you knew she was the star of the film, even if you don't recognize her. If you google Honor Swinton-Byrne, more pictures of her mother show up than the actress herself, but undoubtedly in a year or two's time this will be far from the case. Her screen gravitas and the nuance of her ability guarantees she will become a major cinematic force. 

I couldn’t put my finger on what felt so familiar about the narrative of the film, until the passing of Anthony from an overdose. And then it clicked: Ariana Grande and Mac Miller. With the difference how their stories were told. The media narrative of Mac Miller’s death framed Ariana in parts either as a villain or victim of the death of a talented artist that she loved very much. Whereas “The Souvenir” is by and large concerned with Julie’s survival. We watch her grieve and balance between resentment and compassion for a man she loves who is set on self-destruction, even if he takes his girlfriend down with him. Ariana was not afforded the same kindness, or even humanity, which points to the importance of "The Souvenir." It’s a universal story, but when set in Johanna Hogg’s gentle gaze at a younger self, the cultural vision falls on Julie's struggle between identity as an artist or a lover, and the grief of loving an addict. It is much greater than a patriarchial narrative of the woman left behind by the deathly consequence of addition. It's the narrative of a woman surviving, despite.

The film was acquired by A24, but so far does not appear to have a date set for wide release. A24 has additionally also purchased rights for the sequel, “The Souvenir 2” which is set to begin production this summer.

(Image sourced via Sundance Film Festival.)