Art and Film: Joanna Hogg’s sublime deliberation

Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne as Rosalind and Julie in “The Souvenir”. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In the autobiographical film The Souvenir, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s fourth and latest feature and a gemlike crystallization of her seamless method, she uses Jean-Honoré Franogard’s eighteenth-century canvas of the same title to set the terms of the budding relationship between Julie, the film’s ingenuous protagonist, and the older Anthony, a slithering cad to whose intuitively obvious vices and diseased nature she appears utterly oblivious. She is a film student living in the posh Knightsbridge section of London in the early 1980s, bankrolled by her comfortable, upper-middle-class parents; he supposedly has some enigmatic position at the Foreign Office that reinforces his self-importance. According to a 1792 catalogue, the small, delicate painting depicts Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s literary heroine, also named Julie. She is carving her lover’s initials into a tree. As the two gaze at the piece at The Wallace Collection in London, Anthony (a suitably predatory Tom Burke) intimates with trademark aristocratic cockiness – jaded and supercilious, half-mumbled and wholly unearned – that it is telling the contemporary Julie to fall in love with him. From a distance he seems too louche to be credible, but love – especially first love – is blind, and codependency makes it even blinder.

Played to gamine perfection by Honor Swinton Byrne, Julie unquestioningly accepts Anthony’s calculated seductions until, as their monograms reappear in progressively ugly circumstances and become a cruel joke, she simply can’t, even then harboring residual affection for the mendacious, blighted man who had been her svengali. But if his gaslighting evokes Hitchcock, Hogg’s central concerns are more in line with Rohmer’s. Julie faces the arduous task of knowing not so much her lover as herself, or rather starting to do so (Hogg is making Part II). In advancing this goal, her teachers are condescending but not entirely useless. Under their sour tutelage, in opposition to the bloviation of a hilariously asinine auteur prodigy, she gleans that for an artist to drift too far from her own native reality is a prescription for phoniness. The idea seems to be that genuine art calls for the integration of work and self, which requires not jettisoning one’s background in favor of something nobler but optimizing the tension between the familiar and the new. Indeed, Rousseau’s Julie is taken to symbolize the primacy of individual authenticity – one’s “secret principles” – over societally determined virtue. Hogg has broadly followed these concepts in her own work, plumbing her own social class and milieu to isolate unique personal circumstances within it.

In her technical approach to filmmaking, she implicitly elevates idiosyncrasy over conformity. She cultivates cast immersion and extracts segments from long, semi-improvised takes for the final version of the film, which thus mimics the tentative and erratic deliberation of real life. If her movies at times lack pitched dramatic tension, they more than compensate with messy, slow-burning revelations, disappointments, and triumphs that ring truer. Representing comfort for Julie is her mother Rosalind (Byrne’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton, unsurprisingly flawless). She is scolding and befuddled but also unstintingly supportive and loyal, the way good parents ultimately are. As Julie encounters the pitfalls of romance and the reassurances of family, she migrates from a worthy but callow effort to chronicle the lives of the fallen shipbuilding community in Sunderland to something closer to her own increasingly rich, albeit painful, personal experience. Pain, she discovers, can be edifying. It deepens your soul and distinguishes your life. As Julie lives hers, naïvely glistening symbols become soberly fraught: the Irish Republican Army – earlier resolutely condemned by Anthony and Julie’s father and faintly valorized by Julie and her mother in a testy dinner conversation – bombs Harrods, within earshot of Julie’s apartment.

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne as Anthony and Julie in “The Souvenir”. Photo courtesy of Austin Chronicle.

Hogg, also a visual artist, charted the structure of The Souvenir via drawings. And she uses cinematic facsimiles of paintings as narrative mechanisms. In a fixed plane, shooting at a generous distance, she establishes clear visual focal points – windows looking upon urban scenes à la Hopper, doorways opening onto Constable-esque pastoral landscapes. Narrative strands radiate from and flow into these scenes. Julie warily looks out of her now-familiar apartment window after she hears the IRA bomb detonate. Near the end of the movie, she walks out of the hangar that serves as her school’s studio towards a green field against a broad horizon. The camera then brackets the field with the doorway, as a painting might be framed. The movie itself has thus become a souvenir: the distillation of an experience, a memory to keep as a source of wisdom, resilience, and empathy. But despite the hint of blue-sky optimism, and the implication of a lesson learned, there is no suggestion of durable existential victory. As life goes on, so too will pain. In her lyrically humanistic movies, Hogg emerges as a hard-nosed realist with an aptly soft heart.

The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg. With Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, and Tilda Swinton.

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Art and Film: The lives of artists
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Art and Film: Van Gogh’s sanity

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