At the start of Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical drama, “The Souvenir,” we hear a young filmmaker outlining her first feature: a grotty working-class narrative set in the shipyards of Sunderland, a city in the North of England. It isn’t a world that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a 24-year-old film student living in London’s affluent Knightsbridge district, knows particularly well. Still, the warmth and intelligence we hear in her voice suggests that she could very well tap into her inner Ken Loach, in part because she seems aware of the potential challenges of doing so.
Questions of narrative ownership, of which stories an artist has the right to tell, seem to arise fairly frequently in modern cultural discourse. We consume art in an era that prides itself on its inclusiveness and self-awareness and that likes to call out anything that might smack of inauthenticity or an outsider’s privilege.
But, as Hogg reminds us, such questions of an artist’s identity and intentions are nothing new. Certainly, they were essential to her own self-discovery as a filmmaker in the early 1980s, which is precisely the period that this captivatingly intimate, quietly heartbreaking movie seeks to illuminate. Julie, smart, soft-spoken and eager for new experience, is a lightly fictionalized stand-in for her creator. And Hogg, in charting a particularly painful chapter of her heroine’s artistic and sentimental education, offers up a sharp but sympathetic self-critique.
But she also directs that critique outward, toward a culture that expected women to subordinate their dreams, decisions and opportunities to those of men, in work as well as love. (Plus ça change.) We see the effects of this in the silent, judgmental gazes of the film professors, all of them men, to whom Julie must present and defend her thesis. But her most pointed feedback comes from Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older gentleman with whom she quickly and recklessly falls in love.
You might question her taste, even as you can see the appeal. Anthony, who works for the British Foreign Office, wears lovely pin-striped suits and bow ties and has expensive tastes in food and drink. He’s a self-styled sophisticate, and when he speaks to her in a low, slow drawl that seems world-weary to the point of exhaustion, he seems both contemptuous of Julie’s youthful naiveté and genuinely taken by it.
On one of their first dates, Julie explains that while she isn’t making a documentary, she hopes to depict her characters and their working-class milieu as realistically as possible. Anthony comes back at her with a reference to the gorgeously stylized films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, noting: “I think they’re very truthful without necessarily being realistic.” Later, he takes her lightly to task for her investment in her own artistic sincerity, as if it were all that mattered. “We can all be sincere,” he says, “but what’s it all for?”
He has a point, especially where Powell and Pressburger are concerned. But for someone who so disdains sincerity, Anthony is hiding a great deal behind his dandy man-of-the-world air. It falls to a fellow filmmaker (a wickedly funny Richard Ayoade) to articulate a blunt truth about Anthony that Julie hadn’t allowed herself to consider. It bears out what you may have suspected from the start, that the two are entirely wrong for each other. But it doesn’t stop “The Souvenir” from blooming into an entirely credible romance, the near-perfect telling of a terribly imperfect love story.
Burke is achingly good as the lover whose droll bons mots slowly turn to dust, as his arrogance recedes and the full depth of his need for Julie — financial, as well as moral and emotional — is laid shockingly bare. It’s a measure of how complicated Anthony is that he awakens your admiration, your fury and, finally, your protective instincts. That more or less sums up Julie’s response too, and Swinton Byrne, in an extraordinary breakthrough performance, shows us a woman torn between desire and disgust, her growing disillusionment never quite overwhelming her compassion.
She would be better off, of course, if it did. To describe “The Souvenir” as a shattering portrait of addiction and codependency wouldn’t be a spoiler, exactly, to the extent that a movie this artful and true can even be spoiled in any meaningful sense. Even still, I’m reluctant to spell out the precise nature of the threat to Julie and Anthony’s relationship, at the risk of shattering the exquisite spell cast by Hogg and her laserlike powers of observation.
Here, as in her previous chamber dramas (“Unrelated,” “Archipelago” and “Exhibition”), she likes to film her characters at a slight remove, using a stationary, unblinking camera that turns living spaces into inner worlds. (It’s remarkable how many angles she and cinematographer David Raedeker are able to locate within the white walls of Julie’s apartment, which is closely modeled on Hogg’s own from the period.) She lets scenes play out in unblinking long takes, allowing complex emotional crosscurrents to build and erupt in plain sight.
The eruptions in “The Souvenir” feel especially personal, and there is warmth as well as severity in its gaze. You feel that warmth most strongly in Julie’s scenes with her eternally supportive mother, in part because the latter is played by Swinton Byrne’s own real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, the most graceful of gray-wigged scene-stealers. But you also feel it in the evocative details that Hogg tucks in lovingly throughout, from the stuffed animals in Julie’s bed to the old-school editing machine she uses to cut spools of film.
The painterly quality of Hogg’s compositions, the care with which she arranges bodies and objects within the frame, is made explicit by the movie’s title. At one point, Anthony and Julie visit an art gallery and study Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting “The Souvenir,” which depicts a young, pink-frocked woman, also named Julie, as she carves her lover’s initials into the trunk of a tree. It’s a lovely example of 1770s rococo portraiture, painted at a time when the fires of the French Revolution were on the horizon, though any hint of larger political tension or turmoil is kept beyond the boundaries of the picture frame.
The similarities between the two Julies are as telling as the differences. Throughout the film, we hear reports of IRA bombings and other terrorist attacks taking place across London, and while Hogg doesn’t dramatize them directly, she shows us enough to evoke the larger historical-political moment and position it within Julie’s worldview. Her perspective may be limited, but those limitations don’t preclude the possibility of empathy or the stirrings of conscience.
Some of Julie’s lessons come from great filmmakers like Hitchcock or Godard, both referenced here by her equally film-obsessed colleagues. But as the time comes to take camera in hand, she mines inspiration from less obvious places — from the melancholy lines of a poem, and from the joys and sorrows of her own everyday existence. If “The Souvenir” seems to move assuredly to its own unconventional rhythms, it’s because Hogg isn’t telling a straightforward story; she’s showing us, piecemeal, how an artist’s sensibility comes into being.
Presumably, that sensibility will come into even clearer focus in the sequel that Hogg and Swinton Byrne are already working on, the second installment in a two-part cinematic memoir. I’m eager to see where the story takes Julie next, though also in awe of the remarkable place at which it has already arrived. In its finest moments, “The Souvenir” doesn’t just bring personal history into a wrenching present tense. It collapses the distance between the artist that Julie is becoming and the artist that Joanna Hogg has already become.
Rating: R, for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and language
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Opens May 17 at ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles