In The Souvenir, film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), becomes romantically involved with a deeply troubled man. Julie loves Anthony (Tom Burkes), even though he has a serious drug problem, leading to disturbing and erratic behavior.
I watched The Souvenir this afternoon and I was left with a very mixed impression of the film. It’s beautifully shot, artsy, and very slice-of-life. This is a quiet movie and never strays from feeling realistic, both with plot and tone. I went to the screening knowing nothing about the film, but have since read that it is heavily based on the real life experiences of director/writer Joanna Hogg.
Anthony is a heroin addict, something that is not confirmed until nearly half-way through the film. When this detail is revealed, it gives clarity to his previous bizarre behavior, primarily his sleepy, half-aware manner of being. Julie does not use drugs and she is just about as clean, sweet, and naive as a character can get. Early in the story, we learn than she is a people pleaser and someone who is easily taken advantage of. Anthony seems to have quickly weasled his way into her world and soon, she is racking up debt with her well-to-do parents and loaning the money to her boyfriend.
The reveal about Anthony’s heroin addiction is made when Anthony’s friend mentions it to Julie while over for dinner. The friend doesn’t understand why someone like Julie is dating someone like Anthony. It is unclear as to whether or not Julie actually knew of his addiction, or if this is shocking news to her in the moment. It seems unlikely that she was clueless as to Anthony’s drug addiction, however, in that moment, she does appear to have no idea.
I thought this was odd, but it brings up my biggest issue with the film: much like Anthony’s friend, I don’t understand how Julie and Anthony fell in love. It doesn’t add up. The first time the characters interact is over a very strained, business like lunch in a hotel. I’m not even sure how they met, yet their relationship goes from zero to sixty. I found there to be very little chemistry between the two characters throughout the film. It was more that they were in an odd, co-dependent relationship, than actually in love. Anthony needs Julie to give him money and to make him feel somewhat normal. Julie needs to care for Anthony and to please him. The needs were present, but the love was absent. Unfortunately, there are real world situations like this, but in a film, it makes for a long two hours.
Despite not caring for the characters, I did enjoy the performances of the lead actors, especially Byrne, who is the daughter of actress Tilda Swinton, who play’s Julies mother in the film. Byrne was fantastic. She is a newcomer, but truly someone with star potential.
The Souvenir is set in England in the 90’s, but its theme of heroin addiction is unfortunately current to the terrible opioid crisis afflicting the United States. Most striking is a scene where Julie’s mother (Tilda Swinton) breaks down in tears while sharing a bed with her daughter. Her heart is breaking for her daughter. I’m not sure at what point Julie’s parents realize that their daughter is in love with a drug addict, but they make the choice to support both her and him. There is never a point where they confront her or force her to make a choice. They must notice the dysfunction, but they stay quiet and supportive. In one scene, they come over to Julie’s house to celebrate Julie’s birthday and they sit at a table, where there is an newly broken mirror on the wall. The problems are obvious, even if they go unspoken. I found this aspect of the film to be the most realistic and the most crushing. I’m positive that this mirrors the reality that many loved ones have with the addicts in their lives, both an enabling and helpless scenario.
Ultimately, the story never allowed me to care for Anthony. I had a degree of empathy for his addiction, but I never connected with him, which in turn, made it impossible to care for his relationship with Julie. I just wanted her to get away from him as fast as possible. Their relationship was destroying her life, including her dreams of becoming a filmmaker.
From a visual standpoint, there was one scene that made a huge impression on me. Julie and Anthony are having a difficult moment in a hotel room, but the audience experiences the scene through a mirror reflection, rather than a direct shot. It was jarring and took me out of the film, reminding me that I’m an audience member, a witness or voyeur to Julie and Anthony’s tumultuous relationship. The Souvenir has many scenes, where Julie and Anthony are partially blocked or not even shown. In the hotel scene, where we are first introduced to Anthony, we only see him from a side angle and the scene is shot at a distance, as if we are sitting at another table and eavesdropping on this couple. Placing the audience member at a distance is a bold and distinctive choice, that gave me the impression of experiencing a visual arts exhibition and less like I was swept away by a story. I’m not sure if it was effectual, but it definitely was a deliberate choice.
The Souvenir is slow paced, but it has stellar performances. The story is uneven, yet tackles heavy issues with a strong dose of compassion. I found it worth seeing, yet I’m not sure that I’d recommend it. Usually writing down my thoughts gives me clarity, but I’m still not sure how I felt about The Souvenir. I did read that a sequel is in the works and I cannot imagine where the sequel will go or whether it is necessary.