Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” is unlike most films that look back on first love. It’s not bathed in saturated colors, nor doused in romantic overtones, nor is it interested in over-sentimentality. It’s not focused on villainizing anyone in particular except for the complications life brings. Yet the entirety of Hogg’s film is steeped in a palpable sense of tenderness, nuance, and beauty. Her slow-burning, coming-of-age drama about a young woman discovering her first loves of career and romance feels like a lived-in experience – one that’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartening.
Twenty-something Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a film student embarking on a promising career when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) at a house party. He’s her opposite in every way: She’s sweet and he’s arrogant. She listens to new wave music and he’s into classical opera. She favors casual wear and he’s almost always dapperly dressed in bespoke suits. Her creative ambitions hold the potential for stimulating endeavors, whereas he’s boxed in by a stuffy, dreadfully boring job with the British foreign office.
Despite their disparity, the two gravitate towards each other. Anthony becomes the yin to Julie’s yang; she’s attracted to him on many levels. He challenges and excites her in a way she’s never known before. He lavishes her with gifts of lingerie and engages with her intellectually about creating art versus artifice – an ongoing struggle she faces choosing the narrative for her first feature. He exposes her to the finer things in life, like art, dining, and travel to Venice, staying in a posh hotel and drowning in glamour. Her presence is good for him too, offering him the hopeful optimism, stability, and well-being he craves.
However, she can’t fulfill all his needs. There’s a dark, destructive flip-side to Anthony. Tiny fissures within their relationship morph into cavernous fractures. While his lifestyle of indulging in wealth and cultured aristocracy encourages Julie to mature, she’s continually and reluctantly forced to foot the bill. Not only does this breed resentment, but it also puts her in a precarious position with her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), who’s loaning her the money. His careless, reckless deceit further endangers her safety when her apartment is robbed and, later, when a stranger appears. Naturally, this puts a strain on her schoolwork, and her career goals suffer a setback.
Since the narrative is an examination of a toxic relationship, intimacy and immediacy are at the forefront. Hogg utilizes the Academy ratio to augment her story, squeezing the character-driven dramatics into a smaller, at times more confining framework. Setting the film in the early 1980s, with events like IRA bombings and workers’ strikes providing the backdrop, gives a historical context to the couple’s unrest and uncertainty. We see this echoed within Julie’s modest apartment. From the mirror-lined walls of the living room to the metallic silver sheen on the bedroom, Stéphane Collonge’s production design emphasizes reflective surfaces as if to hint at the brooding nature of romance – toxic or otherwise. Plus, soundtrack cues help the audience keep track of the years-long courtship, denoting the relationship’s milestones through needle drops (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him” plays after Anthony’s shameful secret is revealed) and seasonal changes through song (“2000 Miles” by the Pretenders blares).
Byrne and Burke’s insights into their characters’ inner workings color the portrait being painted. Both deliver assured performances with compassion, vulnerability, and strength. They’re adept at keeping the audience within their grasp when their characters oscillate from fearless to fragile, caring to caustic and corrosive.
David Raedeker’s cinematography adds a tangible texture to their work. When the couple are falling in love, or trying to re-spark the flames, the film grain adds a sense of raw realism, and when the inevitable befalls them, a softer, feminine focus and sleeker image replaces it. The gloss applied is a superficial shellac that disguises the gritty, difficult reality neither character is brave enough to face. Since most films revolving around a similar subject matter do the reverse, this aesthetic juxtaposition is an intriguing choice – one that, in a very meta manner, mirrors the female protagonist’s own storytelling conflict.
Though it occasionally dips into self-indulgent territory, specifically when Julie converses with her like-minded film school friends for extended periods of time, it’s done with the furtive purpose of showing a woman discovering her agency from a self-motivated, passionate drive. The universal sentiments that Hogg infuses here – that a first love affair doesn’t define someone, but inherently shapes them for better or worse – are what leave a lasting impression on our hearts.