Over the summer, I went to a daytime screening of The Souvenir at the Landmark Theatre on W. 57th St. in Manhattan. I found myself in a tiny screening room with no more than 20 seats. As a poet used to sparsely attended poetry readings, I was both surprised and nonplussed. A handful of viewers sauntered in–a few elderly men, and a mother and her young adult daughter. Over the last five years or so, I’ve been casually following the work of British filmmaker Joanna Hogg. A few of her earlier films were briefly available on Netflix. They were something of curiosities to me—de-dramatized family dramas set in scenic UK locales. Very wide static shots, few close-ups. The travails of a certain social class, and in the case of Exhibition, of the creative class and its veiled gender politics.
According to all the reviews I’d read before seeing the film, The Souvenir is a departure for Joanna Hogg. There are indeed close-ups here, and a somewhat recognizable storyline, and a star—Tilda Swinton, who acts alongside her non-actor daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne. A New Yorker article I read on the director referred to her love of Henry James and the influence of his Portrait of a Lady on this film. Indeed, The Souvenir describes Hogg’s own coming-of-age as a young film student. Being a Henry James aficionado, and having had my own experience as a filmmaking grad student in (New) England, the film’s premise was irresistible to me.
My own coming-of-age had actually taken place in Paris in the late 1980s. I’d left my post-college job at a Boston museum and set off on an adventure that lasted five years, and thanks to which, I’d worked in the independent film industry in France, and also seen as many films as my heart desired, in the many repertory cinemas in Paris. By the time I arrived in graduate school back in Boston, I was not only married but also in my early 30s. And by the time I finished up my thesis film, Fruitlands 1843, I had a baby on my hip.
The Souvenir promised to take me back to those heady and inspiring years when I believed it was my chosen artistic path to write and direct films. Almost twenty years have passed since then, and with that, the advent of the internet, Netflix, and digital filmmaking, which have all changed the film landscape. Not to mention the recent #MeToo stories, and the troubling dearth of women filmmakers overall.
And so: The Souvenir. There I was in the audience. A few moments in the film arrested me. Just as for the main character Julie, my first glimpse as a viewer of the titular Fragonard painting (in a gallery to which Julie has been brought on a date by Anthony) was riveting. This popular (though apparently quite small) Fragonard painting also happens to hang in my Athens aunt’s small living room, albeit in embroidered form. In my family, my aunt’s handwork is legendary. The Souvenir, embroidered by her, hangs above her velvet couch, where I’ve stared at it all my life. Then there is the moment toward the end of the film, after her lover Anthony has left her life, when the main character Julie is back on the film school soundstage and turns and stares briefly into the camera. I have a very similar filmic moment in my own short film,and was able to appreciate again how expressive this self-conscious breaking of the fourth wall can be. It invites the viewer in, and this direct gaze by a woman/filmmaker can be knowing, and potent.
Finally, I was startled by the last shot of the film (spoiler alert) when Julie pulls open the huge metal doors of the soundstage to reveal a full glorious view of the English countryside that the viewer has previously only been afforded a limited glimpse of (sky and treetops only). For me, this shot is coincidentally very reminiscent of a painting in my current house, in my writing room. (Cf. the photograph attached here.) From what I understand, it was painted in Bucks Co. Pennsylvania, and was a gift to my husband (also Anthony) from a beloved aunt of his, who in middle age had taken over the family landscaping business founded by her father.
In the same New Yorker article, Joanna Hogg mentions she had put the film project that became The Souvenir on the back burner for a long time. Hogg had held onto the journals and photography from her film student years, but continued to think that she didn’t know enough, didn’t have enough detail about the addict main character whose relationship with her effectively undermined her ambition and creativity just as it was beginning to blossom. She said it took her decades to realize that the main character in this drama was not to be him, but rather her. And well into her fifties, she arrived at the confidence and experience she needed to write and produce this film.
Even more in-depth than the New Yorker interview is Toronto-based film blog Seventh Row’s excellent e-book on the film and the filmmaker, called Tour of Memories. This e-book is the first critical study of all of Joanna Hogg’s films and process, and features an interview with the director herself, as well as with key members of her crew. I am grateful to Seventh Row for the thoughtful interviews and the thoroughness of the essays here. I recommend it to cinéphiles and film students, since editors Alex Heeney and Orla Smith rightly delve into many details about the kind of artistic collaboration that is necessary for successful filmmaking.
Tour of Memories points out that Joanna Hogg doesn’t base her films on a screenplay she’s written, but rather on a more free-form “ film document” around thirty pages in length to which she appends photographs, artwork, poetry, and footnotes. I was also interested to learn that this film document isn’t shared with all the actors. In fact, it was withheld from non-actors, and even from the main (non) actor, Honor Swinton Byrne, although she was given primary source material like Hogg’s diaries from the time. In addition, the dialogue in Hogg’s films is mostly improvised as the film is shot. And in another unusual detail about Joanna Hogg’s method, the film scenes are shot chronologically, often using two cameras.
There is a ravishing set of shots of Julie in Venice—the back of her silvery gown shuffling up the stone stairs—that is unforgettable. I was delighted to learn that The Souvenir Part II was to be filmed this summer, and as Hogg states, filmed in the dream-like style of this Venice portion of Part I. Such details and many more in Seventh Row’s Tour of Memories make it an absorbing and very worthwhile read.
The scenes at Julie’s film school, with the all-male professors and few women students, are sketched in with a light touch by Joanna Hogg. When I was in film school in Boston about ten years after the events the film portrays, I was told by a female film professor (no less) that I was “too smart” to become a filmmaker. And the male department head who was my thesis advisor essentially tried to discourage my filmmaking by pointing out that there was a “bottleneck” and given that practical reality, did I really want to make a film that was challenging artistically?
So I walked out of the screening of The Souvenir a little dissatisfied, a little wistful, but also deeply pleased that the coming of age of a woman artist was actually onscreen, for better or worse, for all to see and appreciate. In the restroom, I ran into the same mother and daughter I’d noticed sitting near me at the start of the film. The mother told me it was her birthday: “I’m fifty-nine!” she exclaimed, and it seemed to me her daughter had invited her to The Souvenir as part of a birthday celebration. This Manhattan mother looked at me with a troubled expression. What did I think of the film? I was torn between my solidarity as an erstwhile woman filmmaker and everything I know about the difficulties of achieving one’s vision onscreen.
But I could also tell that her daughter had mixed feelings about the film. The young woman told me she was in fact an aspiring acting student at NYU. She wasn’t as impressed by the performance of the non-actor Honor Swinton Byrne, she said, as by the atmosphere of the scenes depicting London life in the 1980s. Her mother and I agreed that the romantic relationship depicted was painful, and that it seemed to go on a little too long. And we agreed that Tilda Swinton gave an affecting and believable performance as… the Mother.
What had happened between the feminist hopes and promises of our age, of the late 20th century, and the #MeToo realities of her daughter’s? We three stood there, smiling at each other, and bewildered.