The Souvenir is about a film student involved with a heroin addict and all the highs and (mostly) lows that come with that. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is anxious, stumbling over her explanations of her film, allowing others to talk over her even though she’s clearly smart and determined. Anthony (Tom Burke) is the world’s least interesting man, posturing as an intellectual with taste and money when he’s actually a junkie preying on and manipulating Julie and those around her.
Writer/director Joanna Hogg creates a fragmented relationship (molded out of personal experience to the point of recreating her own apartment), told as though it was affected by heroin itself. These ellipses in the relationship are an interesting experience, leaving us to glean what happened during them (something like a broken glass on a wall that no one addresses proves fascinating). But the distance with which Hogg tells her story, along with the molasses-like pace, grows exhausting quickly.
One could argue this is the dullest version of this narrative possible; a film that makes its point within the first half hour and spends another hour and a half hammering it home. This is, ultimately, the point of loving someone more in love with their drug of choice than than they are with you. But with the scripting of Anthony and Burke’s performance lacking any charm to prove why anyone would be drawn to him, it’s hard to care, especially when all Hogg offers is condescending conversations, stilted sensuality, and boring breakdowns. Some may additionally argue we don’t have to see what she sees in him, but when his actions (from emotional abuse to literal theft and destruction of everything she owns) are so reprehensible, you’re left with nothing to feel but annoyance.
Swinton Byrne’s performance is itself compelling, but she’s also deprived of material with which to build anything real. She has a face you could stare at for hours, but the camera is more intrigued by what’s in her periphery more often than not. By no means is this a request for more close-ups and monologues, as some of her most intriguing work is when she waxes poetic over landscapes, feeling more like one of Chantal Akerman’s video diaries for a few brief instances. I’m not opposed to a deliberately paced approach to storytelling—take Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night—but there’s something frustrating about a film that’s so fractured in its storytelling that it’s impossible to engage with.
The film has so many brief approaches that could be considered interesting on a formal level, but it’s purposely distancing to the point where it’s hard to blame anyone who walks out from boredom. (Six individuals stepped out and many more spent the screening commenting aloud, to my delight.) Hogg is clearly aware of her characters’ (and her own) privilege, of the sheer oddity of why these two are together, of the way her own life being stalled by a dismal man mirrors the way her mother (Tilda Swinton) seems to have settled for a man, but these inquiries (and others) are barely fleshed out. They exist as told with a caesura, and while it is easy to make a case that these thoughts are set aside in order to present how loving a tortured man takes your focus off anything but that man, The Souvenir leaves you begging for the film to end as the minutes keep passing.
Directed by Joanna Hogg; written by Joanna Hogg; starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Ayoade; 120 minutes.
The Souvenir is now in theaters.