It’s relatively rare to have such austere, auteur-ish films as The Souvenir play at Sundance. Park City is normally the home of brash, sometimes clumsy indie fare, not the rarefied (some may chide as arrogant) Euro-style films that litter Cannes. The fact that the movie won the Grand Jury prize for international cinema is even more off-brand. The Souvenir speaks to a particular kind of film fan not interested in pedestrian concerns such as a coherent narrative or enjoyability.
The Souvenir is dour throughout. It’s a story of a moneyed young film student who falls for a droll, dreary member of the Foreign Service. Soon, he steals her rent money to score material to inject into his veins. It’s a slow, drawn-out, melodramatic descent, telegraphed from the first moments, that leaves little in the way of emotional catharsis. It’s like the film exhales throughout, only taking in a breath when the coughing fit inevitably arrives.
Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, the insouciant young woman who gormlessly takes on love and her art with a distant air. Even when drama does arise, her emotions seem to be in slow motion. There’s little sense of what she cares for aesthetically, as her classmates seem to be doing all the heavy lifting. Tom Burke plays her love interest, another roommate to exploit her generosity and clearly bad news from the outset. Julie is supported by her mother, played in pleasing metatextual synchronicity by Tilda Swinton. Whether this is stunt-casting or an indication of how Honor got the gig (a snide remark, but a potential allusion to what serves as the film’s message of nepotism), the movie only warms up during the interaction between real-life mother and daughter.
The Souvenir is set to be the first entry in a series, presumably setting the stage for when the artist gains more confidence and finds a proper line between her socialist leanings and rich-girl upbringing. This kind of dreary character piece may be manna to certain types of viewers who find the emotional distance and coolness intoxicating. It’s clear that’s exactly what writer/director Joanna Hogg wishes to convey, but whether you go along for the ride is up to you as the audience member.
Maybe it’s the case of a too-long festival or my simply not being game, but the magic trick didn’t work for me. I get that we’re gifted a judgment-free look at the protagonist and her lover, but I felt myself constantly irritated by the choices they make. It’s all so very adolescent and silly. The self-destruction lacks any operatic quality that might elevate it from the mundane. Some viewers may adore this approach, but others will likely just be bored.
The Souvenir is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s an accomplished film delving into a specific kind of aloof melancholia. On the other, it’s a sordid tale, overt in its actions and lacking subtlety in the travails of the young lead. The movie frustrates just as much as it fascinates, and this mixed reaction is likely to be shared by audiences.