'The Souvenir': Film Review

Piercing, personal and entirely distinctive.

Honor Swinton Byrne plays an aspiring filmmaker drawn into a compulsive dysfunctional relationship with Tom Burke's shifty stranger in Brit auteur Joanna Hogg's latest.

"We don't want to see life played out as it is," the enigmatic Svengali figure tells the young film school student in his thrall in The Souvenir. "We want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine." In her boldly elliptical, sneakily beguiling and exquisitely designed fourth feature — part one of a semi-autobiographical diptych — writer-director Joanna Hogg follows that prompt by capturing the vicissitudes of a turbulent romance and the path to self-knowledge from inside the head, heart and viscera of Julie, played with a seesawing balance of guilelessness and resolve by newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne in a remarkably layered performance.

Hogg's fragmented storytelling, full of impressionistic flourishes and short, often oblique scenes stripped of narrative context, will keep it on the adventurous end of the art house spectrum, like her previous films Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition. But the quiet, Hitchcockian strains of the central relationship, the tartly revealing observations of a budding British artist determined not to be pigeonholed by her privilege, and the vigorously confident technique should help this A24 acquisition significantly broaden the director's following.

One of the threads running through this idiosyncratic filmmaker's work is her refusal to smirk at moneyed upper-middle-class Brits. The same applies here, despite some digs meant to challenge our own preconceptions as much as Julie's motivations. Set in the 1980s, the movie opens with Hogg's own black-and-white photographs of economically depressed Sunderland, a northeastern port city feeling the pinch of Thatcher's brutal economic policies, its blue-collar milieu evoked again shortly after, when Robert Wyatt's haunting version of "Shipbuilding" is heard on the eclectic soundtrack. In interview audio, Julie outlines her film project to make a drama about a Sunderland boy's overwhelming attachment to his ailing mother in the correspondingly dying city.

The immediate assumption is of a champagne socialist who aspires to be Ken Loach, an impression amplified in scenes with film school faculty grilling Julie about her desire to shoot a story so alien to her cushy background. Even her grasp of logistics is called into question: "I don't suppose you really have to think about budgets in Knightsbridge, do you?" asks a supervisor with blunt disdain. He's referring to the posh London neighborhood where Julie lives in an apartment owned by her family, represented chiefly by her mother — played by the lead's own parent, Tilda Swinton, in a slyly amusing performance as a benevolent matron with a uniform of good cardigans and tweedy wool skirts.

The love affair that drives the film is introduced almost casually when Julie, at one of many parties of friends, freeloaders and fellow film school students at her apartment, meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a Cambridge-educated toff who claims to work for the Foreign Office. His arrogant demeanor makes it hard to discern what attracts Julie to him, particularly once he starts brazenly mooching off her. He repeatedly borrows cash and claims some mystery work-related emergency as the reason he needs to crash at her place for a while, even before the relationship turns sexual. But he appears to take her seriously, which is a plus.

Still figuring out who she is, Julie self-deprecatingly calls herself "average." But Anthony contradicts her by stating, "You're not average. You're lost and will always be lost." He listens to her film project ideas and offers something approaching constructive criticism, pointing to his love of Powell and Pressburger as a cue to put her own spin on reality. Ultimately, he's dismissive of what film school has to teach her, superciliously dismantling her received notions of the standard Oxbridge filmmaker formation: "It's all bollocks; you've just got to get out there and start filming."

That attitude is even more pronounced in a hilarious dinner-party scene that comes closest to satire, with the always fabulous Richard Ayoade as a poncy twat with an air of bored aloofness, smugly declaring that all know-nothing teachers should be treated with contempt. The more interesting nugget, however, is his question about how "junior Rotarian" Julie connects with Anthony and his dabbling in heroin, a habit Ayoade's character derides with that most damning of condemnations: "mainstream."

Julie's romance with Anthony starts out in hushed hotel tea rooms and elegant museums, with only the briefest flickers of concern crossing her face as he blithely nudges the bill in her direction. But there's no shortage of louder alarm bells warning her to spare herself the pain and unpleasantness that inevitably are to come. In one scene, she returns home to find him surveying her ransacked apartment after a supposed robbery, her valuables gone. Her feelings begin to curdle during the woozy interlude of a luxury getaway to Venice, with the high drama of an opera at Teatro la Fenice echoing her dilemma. But even as she lies to her mother about the reasons for borrowing more and more money, and the instability of the relationship begins undermining her confidence at school, Julie finds it hard to shut Anthony out of her life definitively.

"I'm like poison ivy / I'll break out all over you," sings Willie Mabon at one point, pretty much defining Anthony's toxic effect on Julie. And as maddening as her gullibility becomes, Burke deftly imbues the dangerous character with a slightly sinister yet nonetheless seductive charisma that keeps the bond believable. He's like an unsavory Hugh Grant.

Some may have issues with Julie's apparent lack of agency, but as a sheltered, vulnerable young woman intoxicated by the attentions of a manipulative worldly sophisticate, the extent to which she's driven by impulses of desire and willful self-delusion makes sense. Swinton Byrne captures her complexity in subtle shadings, and both actor and director refuse to judge the character in any way.

This is an illuminating (self-)portrait of a young artist as well as a mesmerizing chronicle of a consuming, destructive relationship that steadily inches its way under the viewer's skin. The stark gaze of David Raedeker's camera; the adventurous music choices, often playing against tone; the striking visual compositions; the backdrop of urban unrest caused by IRA bombings and other radical terrorist attacks in London — all this gives the film an invigorating rawness and realness that provides a fascinating contrast to the cool aestheticism of Hogg's style. Bring on Part Two.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Distributor: A24
Production companies: JWH Films, in association with Sikelia Productions, Protagonist Pictures

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Frankie Wilson, Jack McMullen, Jaygann Ayeh, Ariane Labed, Richard Ayoade
Director-screenwriter: Joanna Hogg
Producers: Luke Schiller, Joanna Hogg
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Rose Garnett, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Michael Wood
Director of photography: David Raedeker
Production designer: Stephane Collonge
Costume designer: Grace Snell
Editor: Helle Le Fevre
Casting: Olivia Scott-Webb
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

119 minutes