The Souvenir at EIFF: masturbatory nonsense
Pretentious – Adj. Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed.
Pretentious is a word that I hesitate to use. A lot of films that people apply the word ‘pretentious’ to could be considered all-time great – 2001, Mulholland Drive, Persona – the definition of the word becomes ‘cerebral, idea-driven and tough’. To some, being told a film is ‘pretentious’ can actually attract them to a work – if I’m told ‘High Life sucks because it’s pretentious’, I might actually be more likely to see it because it’ll contain thought-provoking ideas and artistic ambition. In case you and I share some characteristics, then, let me be absolutely clear: when I call The Souvenir pretentious, I mean pretentious in the dictionary sense. This is an empty, pseudo-intellectual slice of self-aggrandizing self-pity, dressed-up as meaningful art.
Tracking her own life story, Joanna Hogg’s film is the story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a socially anxious film student with an obscenely rich family. The Souvenir tracks Julie’s relationship with heroin addict Anthony (Tom Burke), as she attempts to balance her studies with this increasingly dangerous behaviour. I feel like this is a good point to mention that, for some reason, Anthony dreamily intones ‘I was born in 1980’ at one point, which caused deep confusion in the audience. Apparently, as I have read later, The Souvenir is supposed to be set in the 80’s, but this line – combined with the fact that arts students still like to pretend they live in the 80’s – creates the impression that it’s set now.
The main problem with The Souvenir, though, is that it’s nonsensical. As a film about a romantic relationship, we need to buy into the couple at the heart of the story, but there’s no reason why Julie falls in love with Anthony – at first I was confused, and figured that she was using him to fund her student film, but it’s quickly clear that this is not the case. Anthony is never anything other than a complete dick to Julie – he demeans her at every opportunity. At one point, he sells all of her precious possessions, and she barely blinks before wholeheartedly accepting him back into her life. At another point, it appears to be implied that he’s infected her with HIV: this is instantly forgotten, not just by Julie but by the film itself, which forgets the scene ever happened. There’s just no believable chemistry, and the film is therefore totally opaque on why its main character keeps herself trapped in the self-destructive cycle that (barely) propels its narrative.
The second biggest problem with The Souvenir – and it’s a linked one -is that it’s relentlessly dull. We all like to feel that our lives are interesting – God knows a great deal more interesting than they really are – and Joanna Hogg is evidently no exception. What we have here is a bog standard, heard-it-all-before tale of a toxic relationship, stretched out to a painful 2-hours. Anthony is a dick to Julie, Julie says ‘I forgive you’, and they hug (or whatever) – ad infinitum. Absolutely nothing of any consequence happens during the film’s runtime – a fellow critic dozed off for half an hour and missed precisely zilch. The Souvenir is an intensely personal film, but that means it’s personal to a fault, and eventually comes off as a story not worthy of so much of our time. At the very least, half an hour could’ve been distilled to deliver a more potent hit. I found myself checking my watch frequently from around the hour mark, flashes of light throughout the auditorium (which was, it has to be said, emptier by the end than it was at the start) suggested others were doing the same.
The next biggest problem with The Souvenir is that it’s hypocritical. This is an intensely self-pitying piece of work which concurrently suggests those that accuse Julie (Hogg) of being self-pitying are toxic monsters. Like the films of Charlie Kaufman, The Souvenir is that unbearable combination of self-aggrandization and self-pity, edification dressed up as critique or honesty. It is, if you’ve had the misfortune of experiencing this, intensely annoying to sit through 120 minutes of someone telling you how fucking great they are, and how you should feel deeply sorry for them, especially if (as is the case here) evidence of the former is supposed to lie in the very sub-standard product you’re examining.
There are other things I could tell you if we had the space. I could tell you that the film is unfocused and poorly conceived in its structure – that the film school sequences of the work feel unnecessary and directionless. I could tell you that, for whatever reason, Hogg feels the need to punctuate her work with random interludes where we hear nonsense poetry overlaid over 35mm images of trees – sequences which, by the end of the film, were garnering laughs as well as sighs. I could even tell you that there’s absolutely no character development (a perfect complement to the lack of plot development), and that our characters are pretty much the same at the end as when we started. If we had even longer, I could tell you more, but what’s the point? Neither of us should have to waste any more of our time than necessary on content that is undeserving of it.
All these problems are such a shame, because David Raedeker’s cinematography is truly wonderful. Smoky and ethereal in a way that (perhaps deliberately) recalls the whirring synaesthesia of Phantom Thread, it’s the only element in this inert piece of work that keeps the thing watchable – and practically bars me from giving it a 1/5 rating. Filled with metallics, mirrors, and blinding Kensington whites, The Souvenir feels like a seductive, Avant Garde object of shifting luxury that drifts from the screen with such elemental force that it may as well be in 3-D.
But, other than the blinding greatness of Raedeker’s camera (and an impressive lead performance from Swinton Byrne), this is a film which refuses to say anything and refuses to do anything either – a tantrum of pretention that ultimately amounts to nothing but masturbatory nonsense.