“The Souvenir” is, on it’s most conventional level, a romance between a young woman and a very bad boyfriend. But it’s also a coming-of-age memoir of sorts and an exercise in pure cinema from a skilled filmmaker that introduces a brilliant new talent to the screen.
The filmmaker is British writer/director Joanna Hogg, who folds her memories of film school into the story of film student Julie, who is played by Honor Swinton Byrne. The daughter of the great Tilda Swinton and Gabriel Byrne, she is instantly brilliant -- portraying Julie, first, as very insecure and sheltered, then gradually finding herself amidst the destructive romance.
Her partner in the off-and-on, never-quite-secure relationship is Anthony, played by Tom Burke, who creates a man who is playing a character in life, hiding his truth behind a upper-class facade.
Claiming to work for the Foreign Office, dressing in pinstriped suits and a long, brass-buttoned coat, Anthony meets Julie in posh tea rooms and takes her to museums -- that’s where they encounter the Jean-Honore Fragonard painting that gives the picture its title.
Their halting encounters take place around Julie’s film school life, listening to professors drone on about art and technique and talking with them about her project, a feature film to be set in the rundown city of Sunderland -- a project she’s taking to on pull her away from what she calls her life of privilege.
For Julie, like Anthony, isn’t exactly what she appears to be. With her sweaters, dresses and jeans and hesitant behavior, Julie looks solidly middle class. But she is the one from the upper class, the daughter of the landed gentry.
So she can borrow money from her mother, played by her real mom, Tilda Swinton, and support not only her filmmaking but Anthony, who is constantly borrowing money --- for I’ll divulge with a spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know, skip the next paragraph.
The audience knows his truth before Julie, who notices a bruise in the crook of Anthony’s arm while they are in bed and thinks little of it other than to tell him he needs to take care of it. Anthony, we know instantly, is a heroin addict, relatively high functioning, but still a junkie who needs cash for a fix.
Julie eventually figures Anthony out, but doesn’t give him the boot for reasons that aren’t spelled out. Maybe she really loves him. Maybe she is incapable of splitting up. Maybe it’s an act of independence. And maybe it’s none of the above.
“The Souvenir” is set in the 1990s -- the music is period perfect, as is the filmmaking technology, the key part of the word there being film. That’s when Hogg was in school and her memories, some crystalline, some hazy, provide the bones for the film that’s got a graininess that, again, reflects the era.
“The Souvenir" is a quiet movie, even its most dramatic moments are conveyed in a hushed tone. It's the perfect way to present a movie that’s personal and resonant, a piece of cinema that’s, to some measure about film and art.
But simultaneously it's a movie about a very real person who is played by a newcomer who will be an actress to be reckoned with for decades.