Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir (Photo: A24)
★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Joanna Hogg
STARS Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke
Catharsis can be obtained in different ways. Some people simply rant and rave; others drink themselves into oblivion; yet others turn to yoga. In the case of Joanna Hogg, she made a movie. Yet after viewing The Souvenir, methinks transcendental meditation might have been the better option.
The Souvenir is based on Hogg’s recollections of a period of her life in the 1980s, when she was attending film school while simultaneously embroiled in a toxic relationship. The movie’s focus is on the rocky romance when it should have been on the film school. From Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels to François Truffaut’s Day for Night, countless motion pictures have been made about experienced directors plying their trade, but few have been about novice moviemakers at the earliest, fumbling stages of their careers. Yet these interesting scenes are just the backdrop for the moribund central story of the Hogg surrogate, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), and the mental and emotional abuse she suffers from being in a relationship with a self-centered boor (Tom Burke, exhibiting as much personality as a doorknob).
Hogg’s memories mean very much to her, of course, but it isn’t being callous or dismissive to note that, because of the insular nature of her film, they may not mean much to others. The writer-director relates her past in a manner that’s often fragmented, frequently frustrating, and stingy with the insights. Perhaps because Hogg knows herself, she didn’t find it necessary to allow others to know her through Julie. But the truth is that her screen alter ego is a formless creation, a wallflower who isn’t allowed to express herself in any meaningful fashion (basically, everyone talks down to her throughout the movie). This is only Byrne’s second film (and first as a lead), but the awkwardness that theoretically would inform her character — i.e. an inexperienced actress playing a sheltered young woman naïve about the world around her — works against her when it comes to holding the screen. She’s almost as much of a bore as her boyfriend.
The Souvenir is a hermetically sealed piece, not unlike a snow globe. Except instead of soothing white flakes, it displays only timidity and tedium.