Now is a good time to get to know British auteur Joanna Hogg. Six years after her last film — the unconventional Exhibition — she is returning to the scene with The Souvenir, a semi-autobiographical account of toxic first love and film school that has picked up an admirer in executive producer Martin Scorsese, rave reviews at Sundance, and a coveted slot in arthouse distributor A24’s release calendar, no less.
That kind of auspicious backing is as ironclad a guarantee you’re going to get that this film is going to be big, but what’s perhaps even more remarkable about The Souvenir is that: a) it’s getting a sequel, and b) the second installment secured a deal with A24 even before the first had premiered.
That a palpably auteurist film like The Souvenir is getting a follow-up is, first and foremost, a testament to Hogg’s ability to craft a story with deep-rooted appeal and legs, but it’s also a clear indicator of A24’s supreme faith in Hogg’s vision. An arthouse film securing backing for a sequel is a rare enough event, but pulling that off even before the waters have been tested is almost unprecedented.
For comparison, this is like if Paul Schrader had already signed on the dotted line for a Second Reformed pre-Venice 2017, or if Barry Jenkins had cut a deal for a Moonlight trilogy a la Richard Linklater before audiences had even been introduced to Trevante Rhodes.
Again: now is a really good time to get to know the films of Joanna Hogg. The most natural entry point into her work is, obviously, her first film, 2007’s Unrelated. But it’s not just chronology that makes this the best movie with which to start. It’s a great introduction to the themes that permeate Hogg’s filmography — namely, family and (upper-middle) class — but more specifically, for all their lead characters’ differences, Unrelated and The Souvenir share a female perspective that proves just as radical in its realism now as it did 12 years ago.
Where toxic love and youthful inexperience make up the heart of The Souvenir, Unrelated’s focus is almost the inverse, charting as it does the effect of middle-age on female sexuality and identity. Out of all three of Hogg’s previous films — the others are the incisive family drama Archipelago and the unconventional chamber piece Exhibition — it’s this shared emotional honesty between The Souvenir and Unrelated that makes this filmmaking debut the perfect gateway into the Hoggiverse for newcomers.
Unrelated’s opening frames tell you nearly everything you need to know about lead character Anna (Kathryn Worth). Illuminated against the pitch-blackness of night, we watch her trudge down a dusty road somewhere in Italy, dragging a suitcase behind her as she nears a Call Me By Your Name-esque villa out of which happy noises are emanating. Anna is alone and, we soon learn, the last to join a vacationing group consisting of affluent old friends and their young adult children. Clearly, no one has thought to pick her up from the airport.
Instantly, we know her to be that member of a group whom everyone dreads being: slightly on the margins, not fitting in quite as well as everyone else, easy to forget about. Her isolation is compounded by the fact that she’s arrived without her husband in tow, the two having just had some sort of serious argument back in England.
But rather than vent out her troubles to old school friend V (Mary Roscoe) and the other grown-ups, Anna opts for the blissful escapism of playing drinking games and going skinny-dipping with the younger faction. Amongst that brood, she finds herself drawn in particular to Oakley (Tom Hiddleston in his film debut), a charming former Eton pupil who exudes the kind of cool aloofness that the wraparound sunglasses sharing his name do their best to give off.
This newfound lust doesn’t so much transform Anna as expose her. Hogg isn’t afraid to capture the excruciating awkwardness of her initial exchanges with Oakley: the paralyzing agony of their shared silences, and the plain self-consciousness in the darting side-glances she frequently sends his way to check if he’s watching her.
These are amongst the moments in Unrelated that feel horror-adjacent in the same way Eighth Grade does, except here, the second-hand anxiety is compounded by the fact that Anna is just as uneasy in her own skin despite being something like triple the age of Eighth Grade’s Kayla. Anyone who’s ever felt like the spare part in a social setting worries that they won’t ever stop feeling that way; Anna is not exactly a comforting example in that regard.
If Hogg doesn’t offer much by way of consolation, she does provide us with something much rarer: a sensitive spotlight on a woman’s midlife crisis, especially as it pertains to menopause, sexual identity, and childlessness. We’re well-acquainted with male perspectives in that regard — Birdman, Lost in Translation, American Beauty…the Oscars love middle-aged men in existential turmoil — just as we’ve grown so inured to onscreen romantic relationships between older men and younger women that a modicum of self-awareness in these movies feels like a deluded hope.
That isn’t always the case, of course: 2016’s Suntan, for instance, is a great example of a movie well aware of the creepiness that can come with that dynamic, and one that’s willing to address its deeper roots (namely, toxic male entitlement). Unrelated works in a similar way, layering in nuance where another film might opt for a cartoonish sketch of female desperation, a la most “cougar” depictions.
There are deeper issues at hand in Anna’s longing for Oakley, and Unrelated reveals them with a pace and sensitivity that never contradicts its documentary realism. In the decade or so since Unrelated’s release, we haven’t seen many films spotlight female perspectives on aging, sex, and childlessness with a delicacy like this (Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life being one exception to the rule here).
Ultimately, though, Unrelated is a film that resists easy categorization. There is an even-handedness to Hogg’s treatment of its themes that mirrors life; no subject feels over-handled or particularly indulged to the disservice of another. Like life, it feels naked, brutal — an effect achieved in part because of the film’s unrelenting visual style. Here, as in Hogg’s other movies, the sparse editing and static camerawork steep us in squirm-inducing awkwardness, compelling us to soak up every last mortifying drop of social tension.
It feels almost like a sociological case study, a sense that is underscored by Hogg’s aversion to predictability; pinpointing her approach is best done by deferring to Scorsese, who once defined cinema as “a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”
As in Hogg’s other films, the camera in Unrelated frequently lingers on characters while key action happens elsewhere: in one particular stand-out scene, for example, we hear Oakley and his father (David Rintoul) roar insults at each other from inside the villa, but we’re never permitted to see them fume and seethe, the camera holding us captive in the pool area outside.
Hogg’s unconventional approach forces us to witness the acute discomfort of everyone else in the party as they, like us, are made into unwitting eavesdroppers. It’s as if she’s entirely uninterested in what we think of that charged father-son exchange, only how it affects the other members of the group.
Unrelated’s elliptical storytelling only underscores that feeling: car crashes and horse races might make for visually impressive (and obligatory) set-pieces in any other film, for example, but here, they’re merely events to be alluded to and never seen, lest they distract from what Hogg considers to be the “real” action of the film — the social interplay between her characters. That the car crash in particular forms a key dramatic moment in the film makes its absence all the more curious; like a ghost, this un-witnessed event lingers over us, much as the wedding does in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring.
And that’s not the only link you can draw between Hogg’s films and the works of the filmmaking greats, either. It might seem strange to relate Unrelated to the movies of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh — namely because Hogg’s film is set squarely within an upper-middle-class milieu that feels light-years away from Loach and Leigh’s less privileged subjects — but Hogg employs that same laser focus on socio-economic class in her films, and in doing so widens the traditional aperture of British social realism.
Éric Rohmer is another palpable influence, too, with Unrelated’s vacation setting suggesting that Hogg shares in his belief that summer holidays prove exceptional lenses through which to dissect individual identity and group dynamics. You could even mount a convincing argument that Unrelated’s Anna is The Green Ray’s Delphine aged 20 years and transplanted across the English Channel; like Rohmer’s character, Hogg’s lead seems afflicted by the same curse of indecisiveness, here calcified into a life-altering inability to commit.
Unrelated feels both part of a rich cinematic tapestry and starkly original, its release announcing Hogg’s arrival as an acutely observant filmmaker whose absence has been sorely felt in the intervening years. Featuring an astonishingly raw performance from Worth that ought to have earned her the kind of industry attention her young co-star has come to enjoy, this exceptional debut gives voice to a perspective sadly as rarely heard now as it was in 2007.
That we have The Souvenir to look forward to this year is a double solace: not only does it guarantee more Hogg on our horizons, but its subject matter can only mean we’re in for another razor-sharp handling of female interiority.
Unrelated is currently available to stream free (with ads) via Vudu.