Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 01, 2019 5:09 pm 
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JOANNA HOGG: THE SOUVENIR (2019)

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HONOR SWINTON BYRNE AND TOM BURKE IN THE SOUVENIR

Old pain

I knew a number of things about this film before seeing it, but - which is the highest complement I can pay - it nonetheless seemed strange, fresh, and sometimes surprising from first to last. It's closely based on an episode of the filmmaker's much earlier life; you will learn just how closely if you read an article in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead. Knowing people don't like "spoilers" I'll try not to reveal much here.

The filmmaker's alter ego is a young woman called Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays her mother). She is living in a flat in Knightsbridge, a nice part of London, works for a photographer and attends film school. She becomes involved with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a heroin addict. You could say this film traces Julie's slow liberation from two misconceptions. One is that she should make movies not about her own privileged world but those more unfortunate, and she's trying vainly to make a feature set in Sunderland, in the disadvantaged north. The other is that her love affair with Anthony has a future. Maybe she's also realizing the irrelevance of film school, which is more than hinted at. It's left to an arrogant young filmmaker who comes as a dinner guest (Richard Ayoade) to reveal that her very posh boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) is something more and less than she thought.

Anthony has a problem, but he does everything to conceal it, or to avoid acknowledging that it's a problem. This in a way suits Julie, because she would rather not think about it and has little idea how to deal with it. She seeks some information at one point, however.

Julie comes from a posh English background, as does Hogg, as no doubt do Tilda Swinton and her daughter. In the meat of the movie what's appealing isn't the poshness but the precision. That article helps explain this. The flat actually contains objects from Hogg's original flat, even a splendid (but not heavy) French bed she and the original of Anthony bought in 1982. Exact words of notes this man sent her are quoted as notes received by Julie. The views from the flat windows are recreated by blowing up photographs Hogg took back then when she went around with a still camera and a portable film camera slung around her neck.

That doesn't matter, of course. We don't care about Joanna Hogg's precise experiences at the age of twenty. What we do care about is that a film should look, sound, and feel specific, which this does.

It's hard to describe Hogg as relying on a certain kind of shot; sometimes they are closeup and intimate, or mid-range, or from a cool distance when people are talking or interacting. But an interesting thing she does sometimes is allow characters in the film to walk into another room, from a closeup, the camera remaining still, as if unable to move, as if we were eavesdropping but didn't know it, and our vantage point is no longer privileged. Sometimes this makes things feel, strangely, more real, because it doesn't follow conventional rules of cinematography. Mid-range shots are often in a pale gray haze, particularly in Julie's flat. Its lighting is often delicate. Despite the English love of bright decor - as in the intense green walls beloved of Howard Hodgkin - all is mild and pearly here. But sometimes a scene is dark enough to be chiaroscuro. This is another effect that arouses curiosity and adds a stylish mystery, as in (though it's much more dramatic) the cinematography of Albicocco's The Girl with the Golden Eyes. In one scene perhaps rather tellingly Julie's mother comes with a lamp, to add, because she thinks she always needs more light. Another thing that makes the images of the flat aesthetically pleasing in a subtle way, multiplying its grays, is a wall that's mostly mirror.

Along with faithfulness to her personal experience, Hogg keeps abreast of the historical moment. So there are discussions of the dangers of IRA bombs, and there is one, nearby, as well as a fire at Harrod's department store, from which early on Julie brings home a "nice little fillet" for dinner. But despite the multiracial and lively young people Julie runs into at film school, her world is not only safe but shrunken. She and Anthony go to the country to visit her parents and we get a view of meandering interiors and a very impressive, handsome facade. When the couple have lunch, it's in a grand and ornate hotel dining room, like the Ritz. At this point their own dialogue begins to sound by association like a late novel of Henry Green. Of course a distinctive period note, making the Eighties quaint now, is smoking in restaurants and people's houses and communicating with notes, or by pay phones.

Julie seems to have caught on, and moved forward and then, as so often happens, she backslides, and is only reawakened when forced to by a terrible accident. Though its one fault is being a bit too long, this film represents the same British understatement turning to shock that we get in Edward St. Aubyn, whose books have been neatly, a little too neatly, condensed into the "Patrick Melrose" miniseries. This is a classic depiction of a dysfunctional relationship. As Rebecca Mead nicely puts it though, what we now see as "codependency" was then "simply understood as anguished first love." And this is very, very much from the point of view of the artist/autobiographer but is also distilled, nearly forty years after the personal experiences, into the purity and beauty of art. I'm surprised Joanna Hogg's films eluded me up to now and am eager to catch up on the earlier ones - and see, when it comes, The Souvenir II (now in pre-production).

The Souvenir, 120 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019, also showing at Berlin and Sidney. It opened in the US May 17. Metascore 92%.

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