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Destructive Necessities

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

The Souvenir, dir. Joanna Hogg, 2019

Honor Swinton Byrne is Julie, a young sensitive woman raised in a loving and supportive middle-upper class family in Thatcher's Britain. She seems to have eschewed the conventional path of doing a sedate Oxbridge-type PPL or BA degree and settling for a predictable socially engineered career in favour of striking out on her own terms and becoming something radical for her time - a female filmmaker. As such part of the narrative conceit of The Souvenir is to show us the filmic lens and slant the young Julie intends to adopt as her own area of special interest - filming a docudrama piece about a boy, his mother and their life in a northern (former) mining town. What we are seeing is the metafictional rendering of Hogg's own autobiographical account of being a young filmmaker and there are some really beautifully captured moments when Hogg sets out to recapture her early wide-eyed idealism in pursuit of her craft, letting Julie's camera hover on scenes which look stripped of cogency, tinged with vacant small town rural-urban decay, but which really could be brimming with all manner of tension and drama. But the subject of her film project is also synonymous of what Julie will in part come to embody - a young girl's relationship with her mother in London. Enter the fantastic Tilda Swinton, Honor's real-life mother, who is really the quiet background force to all that goes on, even providing an explanation for Julie's gullibility, enabling her continuing mild form of emotional self-harm and providing the exposition for her pampered blindness to her own exploitation. She does none of this with intention, but by mere circumstance of what she is in the social spectrum and we do feel that this film is a satire of the blase entitlement of these monied classes who never quite want to ever 'rock the boat.' Everything is predicated on that golden upper class rule of never causing a scene.

Julie falls for Anthony, a smooth talking cad who apparently works for the Foreign Office (he may or may not) and is exquisitely captured in all his shimmering obsequious dependency by Tom Burke. Anthony is a through and through heroin addict, but the wonder and shock of this film is the manner in which Hogg chooses to chart his management of this fact and his subsequent decline. There are no grotesque druggie tropes - dodgy late night encounters in back alleyways with hoodie wearing dealers, crazed drug-fuelled rants, the sweaty heady highs and lows - because Anthony is a classic high-performance addict, perfectly able to pass off as smart, cultured, confident, opinionated and seductive. It's this apparent maturity, the allure of the older, public-school educated civil servant type which attracts Julie to him: he is her 'type' even though she tries to hang out with working class artists.

Next they are having high tea in a swanky London establishment, but of course, there is no sign of him ever actually paying the bill himself. Then he inveigles himself into her apartment, becomes her lover and confidant, starts to manage her artistic decisions and her personal affairs and then, just like that, he is casually asking her to borrow ten quid at the breakfast table and then disappearing out the door with it, all neatly groomed, tie on, his jacket buttoned up. We know where he is going, and we suspect Julie does too, but she never questions him. The way Hogg creates a sense of a prototypical sycophant literally draining the material and emotional resources of his victim in tiny almost imperceptibly incremental acts of control and domination is particularly powerful. Why does she keep doing it, supplicating herself to him, we want to scream at her as we see the train hurtling along the tracks towards her, but part of the glory of the film is the subversive hold it takes over its viewer: we become, like her friends and family, an entourage who can clearly see it for what it is, part of the silent majority who never speak up because to do so risks infantilising and invading the sanctity of that first flush of adult independence. And so we are relegated to the role of part voyeur, part knowing accomplice, part appalled spectator.

There are some deeply disturbing scenes of drug addiction which are just so because they are not at all shocking in a visual or gratuitous manner. Hogg treats her audience as sophisticates, never overtly sign-posting what we can evidently far better appreciate by mere suggestive implication. When Anthony's habit becomes more demanding of his soul, he robs Julie's flat, including some precious heirlooms her mother has passed onto her, but when he finally admits he did it, it's done with such staggering arrogance and pathetic attention seeking that she ends up apologising to him, believing it to be her fault that he has had to resort to such an act. Theirs is a classic relationship built on the one feeling guilty that their inexperience and inattention is somehow responsible for the utter train smash that the other's life has always been. Yet somehow we never lose sympathy or patience with Julie, trusting that she has the inner resolve to calmly work her way out of a manipulating situation. In a way, we even feel that the experience of this relationship, no matter how destructive, is somehow defining for her as a budding artist, as if there is something necessarily informative for her which she will later mine for inspiration (cue Joanna Hogg and this very film), the theory that no experience is ever wasted. Nor do we really lose sympathy with Anthony, no matter how despicable we see him become. He tells her a girlfriend of his committed suicide while they were in Venice together, but the way he tells the story you feel sorry for him, and so then, there she is, going to Venice with him and paying all the costs, borrowing money from her mother to do so.

To her credit, she finally boots him out and her mother moves in to help her button down the hatches while he inevitably begs and cries for a second chance. Also to the film's credit, that happens, but we also sense this time the power balance has shifted and Julie has at least gained some wisdom from the whole experience: reality being a bitter teacher. It all ends in tragedy, as one feels it always would, but like the best Greek drama, it's all handled off stage, a silent yet seismic conclusion, and so is that much more powerful. What we have here is a depiction of true human frailty: hubris being the Achilles' heel which brings down men of potential and power.


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