The Souvenir (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Scenes from her toxic personal relationship

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“The Souvenir” is a somber and detached mix of coming-of-age and romance drama which is occasionally emotionally painful to watch for good reasons. As calmly observing how things alternatively go up and down between its young heroine and a very problematic guy she happens to love, the movie gives us a sober examination of one toxic personal relationship, and you may be relieved when its heroine is ready to move onto the next chapter of her life around the end of the story.

Loosely based on the early years of director/writer Joanna Hogg, the movie mainly revolves around the daily life of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman aspiring to be a filmmaker in London around the 1980s. Although she is still searching for her own artistic voice as going through her education course at a film school, she has lived mostly well in her small but comfortable flat thanks to her affluent middle-class parents, and her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) is fully supportive of her daughter’s aspiration while showing some motherly concern form time to time.

When Julie is holding a party for herself and her several friends in her flat during one evening, she happens to encounter an older guy named Anthony (Tom Burke), and it does not take much time for her to be attracted to him. Although often rather sullen and gloomy, Anthony, who incidentally works in the Foreign Office, is your typical world-weary guy equipped with some intelligence and sophistication, and he is usually willing to listen to her and then give some feedback, which she is glad to receive at any time.

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We observe how they get closer to each other as time goes by. There is a romantic moment when Anthony shows Julie a small but lovely painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose title is, yes, “The Souvenir”. When one of Julie’s friends, who has lived in Julie’s flat for a while, moves out to somewhere, Anthony naturally fills the empty spot under her permission, and it looks like they can move onto the next stage of their developing relationship, especially after they have a fairly good time with each other’s parents.

However, of course, there soon come several bad signs to be noticed by Julie. At one point, she spots ‘bruises’ on one of Anthony’s arms, and one of her friends quickly discerns later that Anthony is a drug addict, but she does not want to recognize that because, well, she loves him enough to hope that things will get eventually better for both of them.

Of course, the situation only gets worse for them as Anthony lets himself driven further to the bottom of addiction. At first, he frequently asks for some money to Julie, but then her flat happens to be ransacked of all its valuables, and, not so surprisingly, it subsequently turns out that Anthony was responsible for this incident.

Julie tries to be patient and supportive to her lover as much as possible, but, of course, she soon finds herself running out of patience. Anthony keeps hurting her feelings even when they have a vacation in Venice, and their increasingly problematic relationship accordingly affects her academic progress in the film school. While she was initially eager to explore and examine the daily life of working-class people, her school project is not particularly going anywhere as she often feels confused and hurt by her relationship with Anthony, and she also finds herself depending a lot more on the financial support from her mother than before.

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Nevertheless, things are not always bad for her and Anthony. Whenever he feels relatively better, Julie becomes a bit more optimistic as spending some private time with him, and he sometimes writes to her nice love letters. Leisurely moving from one intimate episodic moment to another, the movie lets us discern and then understand the emotional bond between them, and we are not so surprised when Julie comes to give Anthony the second chance later in the story despite all the heartbreaks which she had to endure because of him.

While sticking to its phlegmatic attitude from the beginning to the end, the movie builds up considerable emotional momentum under its low-key ambience, and it surely depends a lot on the presence and talent of its main cast members. In her unadorned performance full of subtle nuances to be appreciated, Honor Swinton Byrne, who is the daughter of Tilda Swinton, ably functions as the emotional center of the movie, and she is complemented well by her co-star Tom Burke, who did a good job of conveying to us the inner torment and struggle of his very unlikable character. In case of the other notable cast members in the film, Richard Ayoade briefly appears as Julie’s fellow filmmaker, and Swinton is superb as usual during one particular scene she shares with her daughter around the finale.

While it demands considerable patience from you due to its dry, austere storytelling, “The Souvenir” is still an interesting drama thanks to the skillful direction of Hogg, who received the Grand Jury Prize when the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year. As shown at the end of the film, she and her lead actress are ready to move onto the next story to tell, and I certainly have some expectation on that for now.

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