Well, here we are. It’s the end of February and tomorrow, March begins. That also means that it’s time to end Love on the Shattered Lens, our series of reviews of films about the wonders of love. Tomorrow, it’ll be time to start reviewing films about Spring Break and paranoia, two topics that go together like Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson. Perhaps Love on the Shattered Lens will return next February. It’s always hard to say what the future will hold but, by this time, our regular readers should know how much I love tradition.
With all that in mind, our final entry in Love on the Shattered Lens is a film that I personally considered to be the best film to be released last year, The Souvenir.
Taking place in the early 1980s, this independent British film tells the story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byne, the daughter of Tilda Swinton) and Anthony (Tom Burke). Julie is a film student who hopes to make a documentary about a family living in a slum. She’s very idealistic and very much concerned about the state of the world. Though it’s not obvious at first, she’s also extremely naive and rather innocent about the world that she wants to document. For all of her desire to capture reality on film, there’s much that she had yet to experience.
Anthony is older than Julie, though not too much older. He’s a handsome, charming man who is always well-dressed and who has what would appear to be an exciting and interesting job with the Foreign Office. It’s not long after first meeting that Julie and Anthony become lovers. After her roommates abandon her, Anthony even moves into Julie’s flat. He seems like he’s perfect, even though observant viewers will automatically have some questions about him. For instance, if he’s so successful, why is he so quick to move into Julie’s flat? Why is he always so vague about the details of his job? He disappears, for one week, to Paris and when he returns, he brings the gift of lingerie. He claims to have purchased it for her in Paris but was that really where he was? Later, when Julie notices some strange marks on his arms, Anthony is intentionally vague about what they are. (Of course, most people people watching the movie will immediately realize that they’re a sign that Anthony is a heroin addict.) When the flat is broken into and Julie’s jewelry is stolen, we know what’s actually happened even if Julie doesn’t.
Just reading the paragraph above, you’re probably imagining that it’s very easy to hate Anthony but that’s not the case. Every sign tells Julie that she should get him out her life and yet, it’s not as easy as it seems. Even after Julie learns the truth about him, she still finds it difficult to just push him aside. For all of Anthony’s flaws, he’s got the addict’s gift for manipulation and, at times, his love for her does seem to be real, even if it will always be second to his addiction and his need to get a fix. Much like Julie, the viewer find themselves occasionally falling into the trap of thinking, “If only Anthony wasn’t a drug addict, he would be the perfect for her.” Of course, the point of the matter is that Anthony is a drug addict and no amount of wishful thinking or fantasizing is going to change that.
The Souvenir is a rather low-key film. Whenever you expect the film to go for easy drama or a showy shouting match, The Souvenir surprises you by going the opposite direction. Instead of being a traditional “drugs-are-bad” type of film, it’s a character study of two people dealing with their addictions. Anthony is addicted to heroin and lying while Julie finds herself addicted not so much to Anthony but instead to the fantasy that Anthony sans drugs represents. By the end of the film, Julie is sadder but she’s wiser and, if nothing else, she’s a better artist than she was at the start of things. If nothing else, she’s been forced to start dealing with reality. The film’s title comes from a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Julie thinks that the girl in the painting looks sad while Anthony says that she looks determined. By the end of the film, Julie is both sad and determined, just like the subject of The Souvenir.
Director Joanna Hogg has described The Souvenir as being semi-autobiographical. That said, you don’t have to be an aspiring filmmaker to relate to Julie. Everyone has had the equivalent of an Anthony in their life, that one thing that you seemingly can’t give up even though you know that you should. Tom Burke is both charming and heart-breaking as Anthony while Honor Swinton Byrne (in only her second film and her first starring role) gives a fearless performance as Julie. At times, it seems like it’s impossible not to want Julie and Anthony to find some sort of happiness. At other times, it seems like it’s just as impossible to forgive them for their flaws. You get angry at Anthony when he falls back into his addictions and you also get angry at Julie for her inability to accept who Anthony truly is. But, at the same time, you always feel empathy for them. You always hope the best for them. You always wish that they could have met under different circumstances, that things could have been different.
Though the film may be too low-key for some, the quietly powerful The Souvenir is my favorite film of 2019.