Contains spoilers for pretty much every plot point
There is a lot here that reminds me of Donna Tartt’s interests. Young rich people (and their rich parents), who are either artists or vaguely “work for the Foreign Office”, codependency, hard drugs, classical music, social mores, True Art vs. Fake Art, terrorism as back-drop, miserable conversations in restaurants, OD’ing in an art gallery bathroom, overcoats—all rendered through a film grainy gauze of memory and emotions. But based on the universally poor reception of John Crowley’s The Goldfinch versus yes a mixed response to The Souvenir, but one where I’ve seen it land in top ten lists of at least six critics off the top of my head, Joanna Hogg seems to have more successfully conveyed these themes as worthwhile subjects. Or just more artistically likable in general.
Perhaps it helps that in Hogg’s The Souvenir we are actually in London, instead of Tartt’s merely spiritually anglophilic settings. What I suspect has even more of an impact though is that Hogg has been perfectly clear that this story is indeed about herself, the main character a young film student with even her same initials. It took Emily and I a little while to figure out when this takes place because they’re all posh artsy people so you can’t reliably go off their clothes and decor, but eventually we determined it was the 1980s, when Hogg was also in film school. Later I read that the flat was a replica of the one she lived in at the time, and the city views outside the windows are 35mm projections of photographs she took of London during that period. I love that, are you kidding.
I’m going to finally watch Archipelago and see if this holds, but I suspect that a big part of why I like Joanna Hogg is that half of the things she does blindside me, and the other half are exactly what I would have done, and both are a thrill. Probably my best call was when quite early on, soon after we’d seen Anthony’s arm and I’d clocked his track marks, I said, “oh no, he’s going to get some disease and pass it to her,” and then later—! I was also certain Anthony was dead in the scene where Julie and her mom decide to go to bed before he comes home. It had become unfortunately clear Julie was never going to leave her abusive first love on her own, so if we don’t want them together at the end (and we don’t, because only by spreading her wings without him can she can become A Full Artist), he was going to have to take this on himself and just leave this whole mortal coil. No taking him back now! Also: more trauma 4 for the Art.
Tilda Swinton, by the way, is so good in this. Her Hermes scarf, her lipstick. When she’s standing there without any of those things on and the belt on her dress is lopsided, and if you hadn’t already heard the telephone ringing while Julie’s note on the door flapped in the wind, you’d know just from her appearance what has happened. And how all she says in answer to Julie’s look is simply: “The worst.” Incredible.
I love this movie because of stuff like that. I love a stylish English mood picture where no one ever raises their voice and yet everything they say is outrageous, until it’s just me that’s screaming, quietly into my hands. I love stunt casting, here with Tilda playing the mother of her own daughter, the also very good Honor Swinton Byrne, with something of that Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha thing, all bright-eyed, shuffle-footed artistic earnestness and bad young-hearted decisions. I loved those big shelves around the window in that apartment. I loved Anthony’s floor length coat he wears indoors like a robe, with all the gold buttons running down—“Buttons” I called the coat, affectionately. Anthony himself though, the worst! A deliciously insufferable performance from this odd man beamed in from 1957.
None of the casting prepared me though for sudden Richard Ayoade. His familiar face strangely disorienting without his glasses, his Artíste dickery, his hilarious delivery of “…tesselate”—a gem in this necklace. Also very into that mystifying scene where Julie in her pink silk pajamas follows a trail of paper arrows on the floor of their flat to the window and as she peers out of it the block is rocked by an IRA bomb. That Anthony listens to booming dark stressful classical music and opera, and Julie and her mom listen to charmingly elegant frayed old Glenn Miller tracks. How there are two separate scenes where baby director Julie walks back onto set from where she was taking a phone call out in the hall, and then some PA boy has to trot over to close the door behind her. And then in the very last scene when that huge sliding door of the soundstage rolls open for her (pity that PA), and we see the landscape beyond it, and it’s the landscape that’s been serving as a backdrop to the poetry interludes(!)
I did not like any of the characters in this movie, but strangely it didn’t matter. I enjoyed watching them. They were aggravating, but they lived, and we don’t always live well in our lives. This movie is long, it meanders, but that creates plenty enough time and space to have moments where you feel your feelings shift. It is one of those slices of life that does feel like living, with the same gradual sea changes and sick undertows and murky things under the surface that may only glancingly break the water.
Mostly though it is two slow hours of lovely static shots of buttoned up posh British people you are yelling at to just break uppp. I had a delightful time. As Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, put it: “I knew the second I saw the poor Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 33 that I was going to enjoy this film. It simply means that the film isn’t mainstream audience friendly. I read a few of the reviews which were basically complaints of the film’s pace and lack of conventional plot. So I was excited. Not sure if it’ll be in my 2019 top ten but as of now it is.”