Monday, November 11, 2019

Effective Symbolism and Rich Performances Abound in The Souvenir

Sometimes, slow-paced subdued arthouse fare leaves me in a state of being impressed by the movie's craftsmanship but being cold on the film on a human level. As I've said in past reviews on similar films, that's more due to my own tastes than a reflection on any of those movies being innately bad, but it's still a recurring experience I've had with this subgenre of cinema. I was super nervous Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (my first ever Hogg film) would be a quintessential example of this phenomenon, but it turns out one of the best-reviewed movies of 2019 has been so widely acclaimed for a reason. The Souvenir, as the kids these days say, absolutely slaps.

Aspiring director and film school student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) has recently begun engaging in a romantic relationship just as she's prepping to direct a feature film. The relationship is being carried out with Anthony (Tom Burke), an employee of the Foreign Office, and the two at first have a sterling relationship full of stuffed animal walls and delightful conversations. However, Julie eventually finds out that Anthony is a heroin user, a development that has her totally reconsidering what's going on in this relationship, particularly small unorthodox parts of their relationship (like him asking for money frequently) that now gain a whole new context. From there, things get...complicated as the duo contemplate how to proceed in this relationship.

Through this story, a recurring visual motif across the movie is mirrors. It's such a prominent fixture across the film that it even makes its way onto its official poster (seen above). Julie's home has a number of mirrors in it, including an entire wall in her eating area adorned in mirrors. Mirrors are inherently meant to reflect our exterior appearance, warts-and-all, and that means these objects make for a great contrast for characters who are keeping their problems bottled up internally. Reflections in mirrors also make for visually memorable imagery too. Director Joanna Hogg frequently frames entire scenes around reflections found in mirrors to outstanding effect, like the scene where Julie first finds out Anthony is using heroin or another scene where Julie breaks down into tears in a Venice hotel room.

In these scenes, a sense of distance is placed between the viewer and either certain elements of a scene or everything in the scene. This serves as an extension of Joanna Hogg's entire visual approach to the movie, she loves positioning the camera in static wide shots held a great deal of distance away from the characters almost as much as I love pugs. Opting for this kind of camerawork ends up beautifully conveying, in visual terms, the amount of distance placed between the individual characters on-screen. Even a sex scene between Julie and a stranger (occuring during a break in her relationship with Anthony) is smartly devoid of eroticism due to Hogg's default visual sensibility, you instead get a sense of mechanicality that reflects how detached Julie feels from the people around her in this time of romantic confusion.

I especially love how this visual style is used when Julie goes to ask her mother (played by Tilda Swinton, Honor's real-life Mom) for money for the first time. The space between the characters and the camera accentuates the nails-on-a-chalkboard awkwardness of the exchange, you feel like you wanna turn away from such a quietly discomforting exchange. Hogg's directorial approach is just as successful at being distinct as it is in effectively communicating the internal angst of the protagonist of the feature. No wonder Hogg's screenplay opts for minimal dialogue in many scenes, you don't need much in the way of words when you have such evocative camerawork that says so much about what Julie is going through.

A visual-based performance is something Honor Swinton Byrne excels in with her lead performance in The Souvenir. Despite this being her first time acting in a non-speaking role in a feature film, Byrne displays quiet assuredness in handling the emotionally complex material of The Souvenir in such subtle means. Combining Hogg's thoughtful camerawork with Byrne's subtly rich in detail acting and The Souvenir gets anchored with a truly fantastic lead performance. Playing opposite her is Tom Burke in a thoroughly unique depiction of someone suffering from drug addiction, it's impressive how well Burke creates a standalone human being with his role here that totally eschews any traces of the typical cinematic stereotypes of such individuals. It's a distinctly realized performance fitting for such a uniquely crafted motion picture like Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir.

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