Surely there’s a uniquely British word for the manipulative fellow who exploits his relationship with an inexperienced young woman in The Souvenir, though I’m not sure what it is.
Tosser? Bounder? Cad?
Whatever you call him, though, he makes a bid for cinema’s Cruddy Boyfriend Hall of Fame in The Souvenir, a movie from Joanna Hogg that maps out, in intimate (and reportedly autobiographical) detail, the dynamics of a relationship that binds a young, vulnerable woman to a man willing to take advantage of those attributes. The question that Hogg explores here is whether real love can coexist within the context of this imbalanced relationship.
Honor Swinton Byrne is film student and budding director Julie, whose friendship with a somewhat older upper-class state department worker Anthony (Tom Burke) turns romantic — we sense that Anthony is repeating a pattern, but that Julie is blind to it.
Anthony is smart, funny, and possessed of a kind of louche charm that, expended on the shy Julie, has its intended effect. At first, he insinuates himself as platonic buddy (building a chaste It Happened One Night wall in her bed), then when trust and intimacy have been established, takes it further.
He flatters her, and withholds flattery, in amounts precisely measured to keep her desirous of his approval, and dependent on it — this is all expertly drawn by Hogg, as if pulled from a diary.
The movie has a soft, washed-out look, suggesting remembered events, and Souvenir has Hogg’s signature style — the camera doesn’t move much, the scenes have static quality to them, and for an hour, not much happens.
In fact, the movie starts to feel off-puttingly inert. Then comes the pivotal scene of Julie and Anthony hosting a dinner, with a terrific cameo for Richard Ayoade as a filmmaker friend. Through him, information arrives that completely changes our understanding of the relationship and the movie, even while confirming suspicions that Julie is naive and Anthony isn’t.
Byrne’s nearly wordless performance in this scene is remarkable — we see her age about 10 years in 10 seconds, as she instantly senses that she will never get as much from this relationship as she will give, and that Anthony has probably known this all along.
What, the movie asks, is to be made of such an affair? Its answer is that love is worth remembering, even in imperfect form, which happens to be the only form available.
Incidentally, Byrne’s mother in the film is played by Tilda Swinton, and it’s not a stretch for her. Swinton is Byrne’s real-life mother. And one of Hogg’s earliest collaborators, adding to the blurred art/life fusion that the director cultivates here.
The Souvenir. Directed by Joanna Hogg. With Honor Swinton Byrne, Tosin Cole, Richard Ayoade, Tilda Swinton.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material, and language)