The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg is that rare thing in British film, a middle-class film maker who has managed to both celebrate and skewer the bourgeoisie.

Her films Unrelated (set on a Tuscan holiday), Archipelago (on the Scilly Isles) and Exhibition (set in a wonderful modern house in Kensington) are concerned with character and behaviour, buoyed by gentle wit and acerbic observation, in both the script and the playing. She is acutely aware of class, but unlike so many other directors who seem obsessed by social standing, it doesn’t become the subject of her films. The politics is personal, yet still highly charged.

The Souvenir is her latest (a sequel to it was always planned and is underway), set in Knightsbridge in the 1980s, in the London pied a terre of a wealthy country family who’ve now lent the place to their film student daughter, Julie. She’s superbly played by newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton – long-time friend of Hogg (they both learnt under Derek Jarman). Tilda herself plays the girl’s mother, always briskly nipping up to town for a spot of shopping. The flat is round the back of Harrods – later in the film, it will shake when the IRA bomb goes off.

It’s not the only bombshell in the film. The fuse is lit by Tom Burke, brilliantly playing an older man (well, in his 30s), Anthony, working at the Foreign Office, who seduces Julie and makes her fall dangerously in love with him, even when she discovers his secrets.

I purposely didn’t want to know too much about this film, even though it won a prize at Sundance back in January. I wanted its textures and subtleties to seep into me, and it certainly does that, so I’ll leave you to discover it. 

Safe to say that its low-budget depiction of 80s London is perfect, all done via atmosphere and attitude, with careful music choices (Stop the Cavalry, Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding, a bit of The Pretenders), styling and lighting. It’s a film of interiors, stilted meals at various tables, and smoking, so much smoking.

But it’s so much about memory, taking its name and cue from Fragonnard’s painting Le Souvenir in the Wallace Collection, an image that shimmers with the physicality and heat of remembrance, like the film, bristling with danger.

The Souvenir is funny and devastating, the emotional turbulence of a young woman discovering the limits or her creativity and her heart. It’s not my story, but I felt I knew every beat and every space, every character and every room, such is Hogg’s skill with using film as a conjuring of memory and a capturing of lived experience. 

She’s sometimes compared to Eric Rohmer, probably because of the summery, holiday nature and the suppressed desires of her first two movies – but this one’s more wintry, colder, stonier somehow, playing in a minor key, teetering on the edge of self-destruction and self-absorption.

Someone late on mentions Beineix’s 1981 Paris-set film Diva, and I can’t work out if that’s a helpful reference or not – maybe it is for Julie, if not for us…

Souvenir hooks you, reels you in. You might want more action, more drama, but there’s a lifetime of it here already if you look carefully.