Pause and Reflect: Why I am Glad I Gave “The Souvenir” a Rewatch

Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” recently became the first British film in 10 years to be named the number one film in “Sight and Sound” list of the top films of the year. One hundred critics, programmers and academics from across the globe voted in the poll and much to everyone’s surprise, “The Souvenir” napped the top spot from Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”. If you head over to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is certified fresh with a rating of 90% with critics hailing it “an instant British classic”, “Wonderful and totally engaging” and “a marvel to behold”.

However, the audience scores paint a different picture, with comments such as “What a mumbling snoozefest”, “This is possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen” and “The movie was nothing but nonsense dialogue.” Many of the comments from audience members share similar opinions on the film, a failure to see what all the fuss was about, an inability to connect with the characters portrayed in the film and found the overall tone of the film pretentious.

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And, truth be told this was my own initial response when I first watched the film. I found it a slow drag and found the character of Julie irritating with her naivety and lack of common sense. I was left feeling cheated by the film, and after dedicating two hours of my busy schedule I felt annoyed that it hadn’t lived up to the hype.

Still, I seemed haunted by the film in the weeks after my first viewing. I had hated other films and had simply forgotten them by the next day. However, I couldn’t quite get over “The Souvenir”. Quickly, a ‘love-hate’ relationship emerged. I didn’t like the film, but I respected what Hogg was attempting to do, using her own experiences to patchwork together a coming-of-age tale of a woman who is so blinded by her determination to make a doomed relationship work, that she ignores the rest of the world that surrounds her.

However, I felt that I couldn’t connect to this upper-middle-class world, especially seeing as it was so far removed from the working-class environment I was brought up in that the film might as well have been set on Mars. I found it slightly insulting that Julie seemed hellbent on telling the story of the young boy from Sutherland, only for the film never to emerge.

I couldn’t quite get over “The Souvenir”. Quickly a ‘love-hate’ relationship emerged. I didn’t like the film, but I respected what Hogg was attempting to do.

Perhaps, “insulting” is far too strong a word. Maybe, I was more perplexed rather than insulted. Julie may have the best intentions but she’s too self-absorbed in this world of privilege that it just becomes another forgotten project. I just couldn’t stand this character, who I considered to be immature and naive. And then, it hit me…In a lot of ways, I was like Julie. I may not be from the same background or class, but I had experienced the stresses of film school, and at certain points in my life I had also become too self-absorbed to pay attention to the world around me.

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Julie is so caught up with her own problems, that the world outside her window literally blows up at one point. The bombing is never addressed, we never see outside Julie’s apartment but it acts as a cruel reminder that there are always others outside our bubbles who are experiencing greater suffering. Inside the walls of her apartment, Julie is also blinded by her own love that she ignores the obvious red flags in her relationship.

Maybe, the real reason I had such a dislike towards “The Souvenir” and the character of Julie was that she reminded me of myself. It was like looking at my own reflection in the mirror, at this confused, naive young woman trying to figure out her way in the world. It’s an interesting decision to have Julie’s flat feature floor to ceiling mirrors, and mirrors are almost a secondary character in the film. When we are confronted with our reflection some truths are revealed to us, and they aren’t always pretty. We can choose to pay attention to the reflection or we can smash the glass, like Burke’s Anthony decides to do.

“The Souvenir” is a film where we must pay attention to every little detail, every simple facial expression, sigh and glance. A picture tells a thousand words. 

“The Souvenir” is a film which unfolds gradually and during my first watch of the film, I found its pacing utterly frustrating. It was my sixth film screening of the day at the Edinburgh Film Festival and all I wanted to do was sleep. I was also nursing a terrible summer cold which caused me to have spontaneous coughing fits. I left the screening at one point to cough up my guts. When I returned it appeared that I hadn’t missed much, but perhaps I had. “The Souvenir” is a film where we must pay attention to every little detail, every simple facial expression, sigh and glance. A picture tells a thousand words.

Upon a second viewing, you begin to notice more tension and anger between Julie and Anthony, and you spot the warning signs well in advance which adds a layer of horror to the film. Second time around, I felt as helpless as Julie and suddenly a wave of empathy washed over me. Also, knowing the film’s outcome made the second viewing experience unbearably tense, and the experience was like watching a car crash.

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Now, I could take the time to appreciate the beauty and composition of each shot and how it was framed. David Raedeker’s cinematography is intimately beautiful. I could also appreciate the editing by Helle Le Fevre, who manages to keep certain scenes dragging on before cutting away, acting as a reminder that in life there are many uncomfortable minutes of silence that make up a large majority of our day. It’s hard to explain, but in a way, I felt like we were watching these scenes play out at a distance, as a voyeur. As if we were meant to be seeing this all play out like a distorted reflection in a mirror…

Every pause between lines of dialogue has weight to it. It’s less about what words are exchanged between the two, and more about the words that they don’t utter.

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The performances by Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne are muted, subtle and low-key. These aren’t big, dramatic roles and there weren’t any scenes where the actors acted out emotional meltdowns. Every pause between lines of dialogue has weight to it. It’s less about what words are exchanged between the two, and more about the words that they don’t utter. There’s such a deep-rooted sadness in “The Souvenir” and what we are presented with is a warning: speak what’s on your mind before it’s too late.

Hogg is a filmmaker whose work is hard to connect to upon first initial viewing and there are many directors whose work I haven’t exactly warmed to upon my first attempt (I avoided the work of Ingmar Bergman for many years before falling in love with his filmography). Famously, Martin Scorsese switched Hogg’s 2010 film “Archipelago” off after 15 minutes. The next day, he felt compelled to rewatch it. Scorsese advised on 2013’s “Exhibition” and is an executive producer on “The Souvenir”. And, Scorsese’s opinion does matter despite all that stuff he said about Marvel films.

Sometimes, we simply need to pause and reflect on a film, and if you can’t stop thinking of it then it’s worth returning to it. I’m not sure whether I want to see any of Hogg’s other films, or even see “The Souvenir Part II” but I do know that I am grateful that I gave “The Souvenir” another chance.

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