The Souvenir Director Joanna Hogg 2019 UK/USA 2hrs Cert. 15
Writer. Joanna Hogg
Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, Tom Burke as Anthony, Tilda Swinton as Rosalind, Richard Ayoade as Patrick, Jaygann Ayeh as Marland, Jack McMullen as Jack, Hannah Ashby Ward as Tracey, Frankie Wilson as Frankie, Barbara Peirson as Anthony’s Mother, James Dodds as Anthony’s Father, Ariane Labed as Garance.
Julie meets Anthony, who works at the Foreign Office, and he moves in with her after her roommate leaves. He delivers a postcard with a picture of the girl in “The Souvenir”. He later takes her to the London Gallery where the painting is hung. Julie says the girl looks sad, while Anthony says she looks determined. Beginning as a normal early twenty something relationship a foreign office apparatchiks nonsensical privileged buffoon; a touch hard but you’ll follow my meaning later, Antony conceals from Julie a girl from a wealthy farming family his drug habit. So begins the journey of betrayal and the delusional conceit warps the malleable minds of the protagonists as they try to forge realism by different means in this coming of age melodrama with more than a mirror of the image the title is borrowing.
This is a tragic symbiotic well dramatised screenplay based around a painting authored by the versatile Director Joanna Hogg in a Martin Scorsese production with BBC Films and BFI support. Set in eighties London it is in some part a memory of the Director Author but made into a English melodrama of a kind. The aim is to show more than the elements of a young romance. It ostensibly tries to put across in this story the complexities of the art of artifice in life as well as what seems to reflect the authors own experiences of her empowerment through the medium of film. Director of Photography David Raedaker summons up some painterly scenes as a fluid narrative roster of cinematic techniques none of which deflect you from the unfolding power of the piece. It is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries by Julie.
The 16th century painting the essence of the film is based around is The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard which is a small romantic oil painting on panel which is presently under restoration at the Wallace Collection Manchester Square. I remember The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard but not the former unfortunately as it conveys what this film tries to convey about art it’s conception, it’s disadvantage of being unreal but woven with the thought and purpose of communication of feelings as the artifice of film – so the arch sets out to show. The letter the young woman Julie is holding is a note she responds, lost in nature and carving a love note on a tree while her obedient dog; Spaniel equals fidelity, watches his mistresses purposefulness. The paradox of love being ethereal and not present without hardship and overcoming the singularity a relationship needs. This is a woman claiming in art, her representation while the painter observes and propels us to think on what we observe. Whether this film achieves this is the challenge.
The depiction of this woman is also conveying status and a muse is the artists medium in that Jean-Honoré Fragonard himself survived successfully into later life expressing exuberantly to the society of the time – as this film tries in parallel to do – observations and realisations of emotional themes.
The ornament of art
When sold in 1792 in went under the original title ‘Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes’ (“Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”). A book in which the girl is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s heroine Julie. It would have been a flavour of the rococo nature of the film to follow had it that as its title.
The rocaille meets the barocco of the style Jean-Honoré Fragonard excelled in finding his style sensible of the times.
So far so complicated.
The art of unspoken words
The film is an august attempt charging the main character Julie with the dilemma of loves needs and possibilities by using the industrial strength acid LSD deflowering of the masculine throes of tormented Antony floundering empowerment in its waste. Shelley comes to mind in the intercept of costume department, furniture styling and lack of proportionality n the Byron device.
Stronger were the woman’s survival and womanly instincts coming through. The rational of French 16th century society turning in the Revolution Is sanguine but not trite in its exploration of to depict softer emotions of love, pity, sympathy and grief, a type of emotional sensitivity which as we digress the French excel. Take ‘Macron’ic personas proliferation (G7 Iran Brazil) and even imitation of ‘old guard’ Napoleonic myth makers. Getting towards screen writing a bit Proustian also and let the onslaught begin!
The film never approached rapprochement of French style or dramatic tremors but for the occasional side swipe at the class from across a glistening glass or sombre car scene.
Eighties angst and bombs
Set in the eighties it brings in Antony’s fastidious denial of what his work entails obliquely. He has a concealed, for a while at least heroin habit that is centrally along with eighties smoking habits which jar and do not placate even if continuity is attained while domestic scenes sexual and emotional are testing the relationships shifting heaviness. By avoiding the reasons Antony is so distraught and damaged we are failed in seeing his character as anything other than the floundering dandy type and habit fuelled despot Little is revealed about.
Julie is not yet in control of her feelings and allows over-generously the out of control behaviour of Antony. Much is made of the emotional scars as they consume Julie and the family of Julie is supportive and placed in the narrative as benign and forgiving parents. There is a generational gap and delayed realisation of Julie’s predicament. It becomes a joint and shared set of problems which has a substance and form which other parts lack.
An app is now available for you to set up a personality profile – in those days it was something like Dateline or Matchmaker – not just a box of costly crocs to impress along with the exotic date at Pizza Express avoiding Eastern tummy troubles. The app is compared to the alternatives and allowing parents to vet or suggest is not now a go to as they it has to be said might have a select view of you and an overprotective seat at the table.
There are awkward dining scenes with all parties doing what I thought at times was improv and a bit Mike Leigh. Tilda Swinton is acting royalty and gives a tension filled anxiety laden caring delicately portrayed character as Julie’s mother. She is in fact Honor Swinton Byrnes mother – as you probably guessed.
There are some quibbles on my part as to the success of some scenes which may seem one dimensional and not lifted to two even on occasion.
For a middle act there is a journey in the stylised vision of Antony’s view of what should be perfect. This fragility is played out in a Venice sequence and is provided with the copious painterly steps and bridges with a crossover to the third act and the continuing complexities.
The film school observations are navel gazing and black comedy of a kind and the over analysis (I contribute I confess) is necessary. The reason becomes clear as halfway to fifty a change in perspective takes place in the self examination of Julie. A fellow student who has none of the advantages including race of the central privileged upper middle class (stereotyping is eighties and smoking allowed) posits entitlement seen to this day unfortunately as we faze out on a political landscape where either educational lift or loads of money are seen as a door opener it falls without levering open the can of worms it seems to involve. It is after protracted calamity and a slowish pace to the denouement the film becomes overpowering in its emotional cut and thrust.
An occasional jokey reposts from a working person is glanced. In the immediacy of this relationship Julie takes a stand and while not offering choice – I thought a picnic scene might have been the relocation of Antony to one of those Surrey Mental Hospitals on the Downs or the Peper Harrow reformatory of liberal thinking once home to Will Self. It didn’t have any of that vibe or coarse energy and suffered from its formula of class which may or may not have been intentional.
There are genuinely graceful scenes and sensitively portrayed. There are literal reflections and in a composite element to the narrative – Antony’s past loves were a challenge – named notionally as Desiree – a famous Christine Rossetti poem strike a chord.
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
The poem as the panel oil painting is a miniature of emotions caught as microbes of existence.
The music was brilliant and interspersed with glorious arias and operatic death in Venice oblique reverberance.
Conclusion **** 4
16th Century painter Jean-Honoré Nicolas Fragonard is a notable deportment in this film. The elegance and majestic allegorical canvas are seen in their absence from the film as only postcards and asides. The Souvenir is perhaps that lock keep. In a recent interview with actress Lindsay Duncan on the Theatre and play Hansard said of that medium and it might apply to Cinema or other forms “I don’t think Theatre should be preachy, it should be more skilful than that. Like a Trojan horse carrying important stuff inside.” That is a very astute observation from a maker of art. The emotions of ‘parts’ she goes on to say of Hansard “It offers the chance for us to see ourselves from the outside looking in. At the moment we need every possible way to take stock and remember what is important in life.” Hansard is delivered to QFT in a live screening on 07 November 2019. So eighties, so now.
The Trojan horse here holds its content tightly with the literature eloquent and taut, like the romantic period it seeks to allude to giving thoughts of ‘that love must suffer for loving; the deeper planted, the more it must suffer, in that all true passion of love at its highest force inevitably ends in tragedy: …… But why should sorrow be always creeping in upon joy?’ (Ch.14 Castle Dor)
This film is episodic and is while fluid in its visual dexterity is unable I feel to impose the stark reality of the situation Julie deals with. It is a very watchable contained and clear story which is set to continue as filming of The Souvenir has already started. Whether it achieves the scope of the emotional tapestry seen in the painting will be for you to decide.
30 August 2019
Screening at QFT Belfast from 31 August to 5 September 2019 and possibly beyond.
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