Joanna Hogg’s new movie The Souvenir is refrigerated and mysterious: uncompromising, uningratiating: an artefact in the highest auteur register, but a film that creeps up on you – from behind. There’s a challenging absence of obvious readability, particularly with regard to the vital issue of tone. In some ways, it’s like a psychological drama without the drama or an ironic satire without the irony – or not much irony anyway. (Perhaps the nearest thing to playfulness is the deadpan announcement over the closing credits that The Souvenir II is on its way — the way they used to trail the upcoming James Bond.)
As with other Hogg films, there is an austere, unemphasised plainness. Closeups are rare. Hogg conducts her dramatic business in a sort of indoor available light, with characters often quite simply going into semi-darkness if they walk away from windows: a look Hogg has contrived in her other films, no matter what cinematographer she is working with. Most distinctively, it is a film about the upper classes, but not in the Downton Abbey style: it is about the upper classes as they actually are, in the dull day-to-day, a social realist movie about posh people. It’s as if Hogg has found a contemporary English response to the rhetoric of Antonioni or Visconti.
The setting is the early 80s, and a sweet-natured young film student called Julie – keen on her documentary proposal about working-class communities in Sunderland – lives in a smart flat in London’s Knightsbridge, just across from the cupola of Harrods department store. This is evidently a pied-à-terre kept by her extremely grand parents who have a country place in north Norfolk. Her mother sometimes pops in after shopping expeditions, and is always having to “lend” Julie money for her film projects.
Julie is living here with bohemian flatmates, and at boozy, smoky parties the conversation sometimes strays to the subject of Julie’s privilege, though in a tolerant vein. But then these friends head off on their travels, leaving her alone in the flat. It is at this stage that the vampirish figure of Anthony makes his appearance: a supercilious, opinionated young man with a chalkstripe suit and a junior position at the Foreign Office. He has an insidious knack of playing on Julie’s insecurities, by asking pointedly sceptical, quizzical questions about her work and airily claiming to admire Powell and Pressburger. His seduction technique involves taking her to the Wallace Collection to see Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir. It isn’t long before this sinister, parasitical figure has moved in, buying Julie erotic lingerie, taking her to Venice, disrupting her film-making plans and upending her life.
In another sort of movie, this would be a black comedy, and it feels like the plot for something by Nancy Mitford, or an early AN Wilson novel such as Wise Virgin or The Sweets of Pimlico. But comedy isn’t what’s happening. Yet what is happening?
The casting is a challenge: Anthony is played with underplayed arrogance by Tom Burke, and newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne gives a rather graceful and insouciant performance as Julie. She is the daughter of Tilda Swinton (and in fact we last saw Swinton Byrne in Tilda Swinton’s short film about her personal friend John Berger, part of a collection of four pieces about the late author and critic, entitled The Seasons in Quincy, in which Berger was shown giving Honor a hair-raising motorbike lesson). And Julie’s mother is duly played by Tilda Swinton, unobtrusively aged up as a patrician mamma. Is the film-making some kind of pre-emptive joke about entitlement in the film business? Surely not. It’s more a coolly disconcerting overlapping of fact and fiction. And this underlines the weirdness of what unfolds, which has the weightlessness of a dream, a style which reaches its high point when Julie is alone in the flat and it is briefly shaken, to the sound of a detonation – the sound, in fact, of the 1983 IRA Harrods bombing. And then things are eerily back to normal.
Hogg shakes the film out of its trance when Anthony and Julie host a dinner party, attended by Anthony’s insufferable film-maker friend: a hilarious cameo for Richard Ayoade, who brayingly announces that it is appalling that Britain, the home of the Stones, the Kinks and the Small Faces, still doesn’t do movie musicals. (He doesn’t mention the Who, so is maybe not a fan of Tommy.) It is this character who is to make a further announcement about Anthony that reveals the poison cloud gathering over the head of poor, innocent Julie.
Eventually, Julie is to be shown working on a different, more Jarmanesque-looking project, in a more rough-and-ready collaboration with other students. Yet the message is nothing so simplistic as just the need to get over her own well-heeled background. Her family are sympathetically portrayed. Positions of disapproval are not taken. It is a reverie, a daze, a strange spell of numbness – and it lingers in the mind.
Peter Bradshaw , Guardian