Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a love story. Or, at least, that’s what Hogg wants you to think it is going to be. And at first, that is what you want it to be. In reality, though, it’s a semi-autobiographical film about a first love that excites then burns then traumatizes. It’s a first love that ensnares the viewer almost as much as it does Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), who is a reimagination of Hogg’s younger, more naive self.
Anthony (Tom Burke) invades and ignites young Julie’s sheltered life in more ways than one. When we first meet him, his back is turned to the camera, he sits alone, and he seems to be much older than the rest of the crowd. Despite their differences, Julie and Anthony are drawn to one another like magnets. Or, rather, Julie is drawn to Anthony like she’s a magnet and he’s a sinister block of iron.
The next time Julie and Anthony meet, it’s in his territory, and most of the scene plays out in one shot, with the camera situated on the other side of the room. Anthony’s face is still almost completely concealed, and the distance between the viewer and subjects is such that Julie’s expression is difficult to decipher. Anthony interrogates Julie about her aspirations as a filmmaker and tells her that people don’t want to see life just play out in front of them. But that’s exactly what’s happening in this scene. Julie doesn’t know Anthony and wants his character to play out in front of the audience just as it’s playing out in front of her. This stylistic choice is very much a trademark of Hogg’s directing, as seen in Archipelago (2010), Exhibition (2013), and Unrelated (2014).
Evident in their first few encounters is the glaring fact that the new lovers’ artistic temperaments are very much at odds with one another. At the end of their brunch, Anthony shows Julie the 18th-century painting the film is named after, which is a portrait by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of a woman getting ready to send a letter to her faraway lover. Looking at the work, Julie states, “She looks sad.” Anthony corrects her: “I think she looks determined. And very much in love.” In this short exchange, it is clear that the two diverge not only in their opinions on art but also in their perceptions of love and the human condition.
From that moment onward, the filmmaking of The Souvenir changes. Having started off with objective, cinéma-vérité-style camerawork, which is very much in keeping with Hogg’s directorial tendencies, the film becomes interspersed with seemingly random voiceovers, jarring intercuts of film stock, and grainy 16-millimeter clips of Julie’s own work. She has taken Anthony’s advice — or, at least, she is trying to — and is no longer allowing life to simply play out in front of the audience. Instead, Hogg has made the reflection of her own life and relationship into something of a puzzle to be solved by forcing the audience to make sense of the deeply personal elements of her relationship.
Hogg accomplishes this, in part, by resurrecting Fragonard’s painting time and time again throughout the film. Julie is repeatedly shown in her stoic profile, oftentimes when struggling to figure out how to interact with Anthony and be the partner he needs. When Julie learns terrible news about Anthony, she is seen in profile while the news is delivered off-screen. At this moment, Julie is saddened. It seems, then, that Julie was correct in the beginning: the girl in the painting is sad, and her analysis of it should not have been overshadowed.
Just as Julie’s analysis of the painting should not be compromised, neither should her filmmaking tendencies. At the end of The Souvenir, Julie finally makes her own film. Once again, she is seen in profile, but this time she breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera lens. She has reframed her own experience of suffering. Not only is the girl in the painting sad, but she is also determined, and, yes, she is also very much in love.
Hogg honors Anthony’s character by breaking the boundaries of her conventions of filmmaking while still making a film that is very much her own and, ultimately, reflecting on a painful experience and making that her own, as well. Yes, The Souvenir is a love story, but it’s more than one between Julie and Anthony. It is a love story between a filmmaker and her craft, and between her present self and her own painful experience.