Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir shows that not every bad relationship makes good cinema. Introduced for selected screenings in Glasgow by the charity-funded project Reclaim the Frame, which supports female-directed works, this widely acclaimed film teases with an exciting cast and artistic sensitivity. But while watching the film, I found the awkward script, uncritical depiction of class and static characterisation hard to chew and left the cinema with an upset stomach full of second-hand embarrassments.
Newcomer Honor Swinton-Byrne stars as Julie, a soft-spoken film student in the 1980s trying to be less dazed and confused about the implications of her ’privilege bubble’ and her choice to make a feature about a working-class Sunderland boy (embarrassment No.1). At a house party, she meets Tony (a flamboyant Tom Burke), who dons a Dracula coat with garish bow ties and has a way with grandiose, empty phrases (“We can all be authentic, but what is it for?”). The scene of their first date somewhat sums up the film’s premise: sitting in a perversely fancy Louis XIV-style restaurant, the pair has tedious, pseudo-philosophical conversations (Julie with trademark doe-eyedness; Tony with trademark conceit), while a bottle of champagne cools quaintly between them. This might be a hint: until the end, there is as much spark between them as between you and your un-recyclable Tesco bag. When they have sex for the first time in a room reminiscent of a metal bunker, Tony flatly remarks: “You’re a dark horse, Julie.” This might sound like a ludicrous joke, but Hogg frames it with unblinking seriousness: this is NOT funny; this is art (embarrassment No.2).
The weird and wonderful but brittle spark is key, as compelling ingénue-meets-maverick stories like An Education, Heathers or Phantom Thread show. But although both Byrne and Burke do a commendable job, Hogg’s script nips any potential for real spirit in the bud. The lengthy conversations, which spout lines like “Stop inviting me to torture you” or “Are you as real as I am?”, are blatantly pretentious and so tedious to watch that you feel justified to check the time on your phone (embarrassment No.3). Still Hogg, who claimed in a recorded interview screened before the film that she doesn’t think she “made a film about class”, presents these half-baked chit-chats as eye-opening discussions with gooey emphasis. The dramatic curve rather slithers than billows as the parasitic but charming Tony blags money from Julie, fakes a flat robbery or demands to be driven to obscure places. Although this story is based on Hogg’s personal experience with a relationship, there is an upsetting lack of critical awareness about Julie’s character: with almost Victorian stoicism, Julie continues tipping on her typewriter, forgiving and humiliating herself (embarrassment No.4). This means that when she starts crying to herself quietly in a glum Venetian hotel room, I feel nothing at all (or maybe mildly interested in checking my phone again). A speck of hope is Byrne’s starlight mum Tilda Swinton, who defies trivialisation and is hilarious as an owl-like upper-class matron with low-key antics and sudden depths.
Hogg’s style has been described as minimalist, but sadly, what is reduced the most in The Souvenir is its liveliness. The best moment for me is the last one, which didn’t only signal the end of embarrassments but also has an unexpected touch of Bresson’s airy sensitivity: Julie, who finally realised her boyfriend was not the bee’s knees and sighs no more, stands beautifully framed between the large doors of a film studio and looks outside, her silhouette illuminated. I say goodbye to Julie, hope that we shall never meet again and look forward to what the next Reclaim the Frame screening might bring.