Skip to main content

I don't want to be in that bubble for my entire life.

The Souvenir
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical drama has been appearing on many best of 2019 lists, but I found myself resolutely unpersuaded by The Souvenir and her low-key, interior approach to “herself” as a young woman and the dependant relationship she gets into with an older man.

Hogg’s style is simultaneously docu-drama in its naturalism – the photography is so flat, you sometimes wonder if it might have been shot on video - and lacking in the immediacy and intimacy of character that might bring. That’s clearly intentional, part of the milieu she is depicting, but it means it’s very difficult to engage other than passively with her characters. I never felt as if I was watching a whole person on screen, so uninterested is Hogg in digging beneath the upper-middle-class veneer of form and behaviour she finds in herself.

I’ve seen complaints made about The Souvenir purely on the basis of the class status of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda’s daughter) and how her privilege is further distancing, but that kind of inverse snobbery really indicates more about the viewer’s prejudices than the picture itself. There’s a meta discussion going on in the film, of the artist as a young (naïve) woman feeling she should be making a film about Sunderland dockers, “ashamed of her own privilege” as she is and told she should “make a connection between your experience and the experience you’re trying to film”, and her adult self, Hogg recognising that the only way she can be true to who she is an artist is to discuss those experiences that are her own, even if they run the risk of appearing exactly what they are (privileged, elitist, exclusionary).

I don’t think any of that’s a problem with The Souvenir per se; the likes of Whit Stillman and Woody Allen has been accused of such remote self-indulgence and still produced highly engaging films. The Souvenir’s problem is that, as a film, it feels as ineffectual and unassuming as Julie herself when her “muse” (in terms of this film) Anthony (Tom Burke) isn’t the focus.

He, at least, in all his unvarnished assuredness and assumed sense of insight, is a magnetic presence, in no small part due to Burke’s marvellously measured, persuasively commanding monotone. We see clearly how he gives off the confidence of “knowing” and so imbues a sense of self-worth in others (Julie); “You are lost and you’ll be lost forever” he tells Julie after informing her how special and fragile she is, much to her doubt that she is anything other than unexceptional (in response to which we, as viewers, find ourselves nodding vigorously). Anthony works – he says – for the foreign office, and there are engaging vignettes when he’s on screen in all his airy pomposity, such as a conversation with Julie’s parents (one of whom is Tilda herself) about the IRA. On the other hand, Richard Ayoade’s cameo as a vaguely obnoxious filmmaker is too broad and self-conscious for the picture Hogg has fashioned.

And the “reveal” (it’s only a revelation to Julie) that Anthony is a junkie serves to underline the impasse of unspoken normalcy that precedes any real interaction in the picture. This distance, I suspect, is intended to resonate with the viewer, whereby one reads deeply into what isn’t said, isn’t shown and the lingering intervals where nothing much at all happens, but my response was mostly that this lack was all Hogg had to say. The kind of lack of anything to say that leads to a deeply autobiographical tale of how one doesn’t have anything to say (and only gets that through the influence of another, larger than life persona). The frame of The Souvenir is one of the oldest there is, and the only variant Hogg offers is to deflate everything that usually makes such tales of manipulation and addiction and obsession so compelling.

I wasn’t completely down on The Souvenir by any means. I admired the performances, even though I’m not sure if you can tell from this if Swinton Byrne will be a chip off the old block. There is something to be said for the capturing of reserve, particularly combined with an improvised approach, and the film does at least in part offer up some astutely-observed nuggets, but I can completely see why others compare Hogg’s films to watching paint dry. A film like this shouldn’t so much grip as mesmerise, but Hogg’s is quite resistible.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.